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Powdery substances raises concerns on Northwest flight
By Elizabeth Stawicki
Minnesota Public Radio
18 October 2001
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Vermont health officials are studying a white, powdery substance that appeared on a Northwest Airlink flight Monday night. Preliminary tests show no evidence of anthrax, but the Vermont health department has recommended passengers and others connected with flight 5908 from Detroit to Burlington, get antibiotic treatment.

Michael Osterholm, who is now the director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, is a nationally recognized expert on bioterrorism. He has been warning about the need to prepare for this threat for years. People are now paying much closer attention to what Michael Osterholm has to say. Listen to the broadcast.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Jan Carney said 60 people associated with the flight will get precautionary treatment: crew, passengers, luggage handlers, and emergency personnel. "We are looking for the possibility of anthrax. We believe it is possible, but very unlikely," Carney says.

Northwest Airlink flight 5908 is a commuter route from Detroit to Burlington operated by Express Airlines I. Monday evening, employees who removed luggage from the flight noticed a white, powdery substance on the floor of the cargo hold underneath a piece of luggage. They notified the FBI. The baggage is still on the airplane which is under the control of Vermont's health department.

Commissioner Carney cautioned that even if the substance is ultimately anthrax, it would not be contagious. "There's great concern about this nationally and I know people are concerned. We know it's difficult," Carney said. "I would like people to try to remain calm, use common sense and to stay informed."

The first stories about anthrax surfaced two weeks ago when Florida photo editor Robert Stevens was hospitalized with the bacteria; he later died. Health officials then said his was an isolated case. Since then, five other people have become infected with anthrax. Reports of exposure to the bacteria have appeared in New York and Washington D.C and scares, like the one on the Northwest Airlink flight, have surfaced across the nation.

"What is happening is just what the terrorists want to have happen," says national bioterrorism expert and former Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who now serves as an advisor to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Osterholm says the anthrax threat to this point does not pose a serious danger to the health of the general public but has been a hugely successful as a weapon of terror. "I call them terrorists because I want to be real clear: this is terrorizing society. I'm not at all suggesting who's doing it. I think we're very premature in suggesting we have an answer to is it related to September 11th in terms of the perpetrators of that event or just coincidentally in that somebody else wanted to add on to that situation, I don't think we know yet."

Meanwhile, no one associated with the flight from Detroit to Burlington, Vt., has reported any symptoms of the illness. Vermont's health commissioner says she'll have the definitive results on whether the powder was indeed anthrax, late Friday. This is the second such scare involving Northwest. Authorities held a plane for more than an hour in Detroit after a powdery substance appeared in the passenger cabin. The substance turned out to be food crumbs.

Vermont Public Radio contributed to this report.