Handling Suspicious Mail

Since October 2001, letters containing anthrax have been sent through the mail to a number of people in the United States. In some cases, the recipient of the letter has been exposed to anthrax. Some people have subsequently become infected.

To prevent such exposures and infection, everyone should learn how to recognize a suspicious package or envelope and should be prepared to take appropriate steps to protect themselves and others.

A suspicious substance is one that you do not recognize or that seems out of place. A suspicious package or piece of mail may include one or more of the following characteristics:

  • items you are not expecting to receive

  • items with excessive postage

  • items on which the city or state on the postmark does not match the city or state in the return address

  • items with an incorrectly written address

  • items not addressed to a specific person

  • items with incorrect titles, or with a title but no name

  • items with misspellings of common words

  • items on which you don't recognize the return address, or that bears no return address

  • items marked with threatening language or with restrictions such as "Confidential" or "Do not x-ray"

  • items of unusual shape, size or weight

  • items that are lopsided or uneven

  • items with excessive packaging material like tape or string

  • items with a powder or substance leaking from inside

  • items with an oily stain, discoloration or odor

  • items with a ticking sound or with protruding wires or aluminum foil

If a package or envelope appears suspicious:


  • Do not shake or empty the contents of any suspicous package or envelope.

  • Do not show the item to other people or allow them to examine it.

  • Do not sniff, touch, taste or look closely at the item or any contents which may have spilled.

  • Depending on whether the item has been opened or disturbed or not, follow the instructions below.

If the item is already opened or disturbed:

  • Leave the item alone.

  • Try to keep other people away from it.

  • Call your local health department, 911 or other appropriate authorities to report the substance.

  • Be prepared to give your name, address, phone number and a brief description of the item.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly in soap and water.

  • Remove your clothes.

  • If the substance is on your clothes, place your clothing in a plastic bag for possible testing.

  • If there is no apparent substance on your clothing, wash them as usual in soap and water.

  • Wash your hands after handling any suspicious item or substance.

  • Create a list of people who were near the item, handled it or came into contact with its contents. Give this list to authorities.

If the item has not been opened or disturbed:

  • Place the item in a plastic bag.

  • Throw the plastic bag containing the item in the trash.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

  • It is not necessary to report this incident to authorities at this time.

For more information on how to handle suspicious mail, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, or click here to view a brief video presentation on anthrax.

Copyright © 2003 Springfield/Greene County Health Department, Bioterrorism / Emergency Response Team   

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