Suspect powder proves harmless

With a quick response, a hazardous materials team allays the fears of everyone at Brandon Regional Hospital.

By JAY CRIDLIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 7, 2003

BRANDON - At 8:24 a.m., the call went out: someone had discovered a suspicious white powder dusting the floor at Brandon Regional Hospital.

Hospital officials called a "Code White," referring to an unknown chemical spill. Alarms wailed as 19 hazardous materials experts raced to the scene. Five minutes later, they began to set up a cordoned-off "hot zone," replete with chemical hazard suits and a mobile analysis lab.

After 40 minutes of tests and mild panic, lab results identified the substance as a food-like carbohydrate complex. Translation: probably a powdered non-dairy creamer, like the Coffee-Mate served at the hospital cafeteria.

"Definitely not a hazardous material," said Hillsborough County fire marshal investigator David Tucker.

The busy hallway in which the creamer was found was sealed off for less than an hour, and none of the hospital's emergency services were shut down or evacuated, Tucker said.

Turns out the only real danger was that someone was drinking a darker-than-normal cup of Joe.

"You could sweep it in 30 seconds with a broom and dustpan, and then mop over the area and get it all up," said Capt. Doug Shirley, who leads the county's Hazardous Incidents Team.

That didn't mean investigators weren't prepared for the worst.

According to hospital spokeswoman Deb McKell, a hospital employee discovered the powder in a hallway near the emergency room shortly after 8 a.m. A hazardous materials team arrived by 8:30 a.m. and set up an isolated "hot zone" in the parking lot.

They briefly detained anyone who might have been contaminated and shut off the air conditioning system, but hospital operations otherwise continued as normal.

Since a string of high-profile anthrax attacks in 2001, the hospital has staged regular "Code White" training scenarios, during which employees are trained to react to a chemical agent found in the hospital.

"We rehearse and practice these things all the time," McKell said. "I think everything was handled very efficiently and smoothly."

According to the Department of Health's Bureau of Epidemiology, white powder panic has been caused by everything from detergent to Parmesan cheese to crushed peppermint candy. Many are hoaxes and are prosecuted accordingly, but some are just accidents.

Shirley said he was once called in to investigate a pile of shredded paper.

Experts analyzed the powder in the Hazardous Incidents Team's mobile lab, then compared its chemical makeup to a database of other substances. The closest matches: bread crumbs, powdered baby food and flour.

Shirley's guess, after examining the powder up close, was coffee creamer, which isn't in the chemical database. The hospital stocks 3-gram packets of powdered Carnation Coffee-Mate creamer in its cafeteria, which isn't far from the hallway.

Someone probably spilled the creamer on the way to the emergency room, McKell said.

"In the ER we do have an employee break room, but it is nowhere near where this happened," she said. "It's more likely a guest or visitor would have been walking this particular way."

A spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said an investigation is unlikely.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the substance was found to be harmless.

"We called off the dogs and told everybody to go back in and get their maintenance crew to sweep it up," Shirley said.

Tucker said at least the response and investigation were swift and incident-free.

"Unfortunately, we take every unknown to the full extent of our procedures," he said. "We can't afford to let our guard down or take something too lightly."

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlin@sptimes.com