A Pine County Sheriff’s Department press release stated that on November 19, at approximately 1:30 p.m., Pine County Emergency Dispatch was notified that six envelopes containing an unknown white, powdery substance and addressed and delivered to several departments within the Pine County Courthouse, were opened. The envelopes were immediately isolated to two locations within the courthouse and all employees and visitors, including those in courtrooms, were evacuated.
At 3:30 p.m., a HAZMAT team from the St. Paul Fire Department arrived and conducted an assessment of the substance and individuals involved at the scene. The initial reports stated the powdery substance was a carbohydrate based material, such as flour. Recent reports now state the powdery substance found in the envelopes contained bacteria.
Law enforcement transported the letters to the Minnesota Department of Health laboratory for testing. The tests ruled out any bioterrorism organisms; however, the tests revealed the powdery substance contained a presence of a type of Bacillus bacteria, either Bacillus Thuringiensis or Bacillus Cereus.
If the substance is found to be Bacillus Cereus, it is only harmful if ingested and people have been known to experience food borne illness-type symptoms, such as diarrhea and vomiting (usually within 24-48 hours of exposure).
If the substance is found to be Bacillus Thuringiensis, there are no adverse health effects associated with this type of bacteria, according to studies. Neither bacteria pose a significant health risk.
No illnesses from Pine County personnel have been connected to this event and bacteria is not contagious. Witnesses stated, however, that one county worker was brought to the hospital after opening an envelope and others were held for further examination. County Administrator David Minke confirmed that the worker had an allergic reaction unrelated to the powder.
State and local health officials will be sharing information, including final test results, according to the sheriff’s department. The process is expected to take at least one to two weeks.
The Pine County Sheriff’s Office is working in conjunction with state and federal agencies to determine the identity of the person(s) responsible for sending the letters.