Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Scared by Paper

The Morning Sentinel reported today about events in Shawmut, Maine, that took place on Tuesday (Oct 17), sending local emergency responders scrambling for their HAZMAT suits as they descended upon the small town. The mystery "white powder" turned out to just be paper dust, but responders are viewing the event as an effective test of their response times and resources.
Dust kicks up a scare
Staff Writer
Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc

FAIRFIELD -- Dozens of emergency responders descended on the rural village of Shawmut, off U.S. Route 201, Tuesday after a woman reported being burned by a white, powdery substance contained in her electric bill.

The substance, Fairfield police said later in the day, turned out to be nothing more than paper dust.
Police and fire officials said a call was received about 11:25 a.m. from the home of Grace and David MacKenzie on Bray Avenue, near a church in the picturesque village center. Police said Grace MacKenzie reported opening her electric bill from Central Maine Power Co. and immediately experienced burns and the numbing of her hands from a white, powdery material.

Hazardous materials units -- 40 or 50 people in all -- from Skowhegan, Sappi Fine Paper and Waterville were sent to the scene and set up trucks and equipment for decontamination. The MacKenzies, said to be in their 70s, were escorted from the house and hosed down in a special decontamination tent.

Capt. David LaFountain of the Waterville Fire Department, acting Tuesday as the hazardous materials operation chief for Team 5, also known as the Central Maine Emergency Response Team, said early theories had the material being a kind of corrosive chemical, such as Draino or sodium hydroxide.

"She did notice immediate burns to her hands and (she) was also symptomatic that it did create whitening spots on her skin, and there was relief when she went to the sink to wash it off," LaFountain said.

LaFountain said later in the day, after the material was determined to have been paper dust, that the incident could have been the result of two separate, unrelated events.

"My guess is that she was exposed to a chemical before she opened the letter and that caused the problem," he said. "It could have been two separate events -- opening the envelope was a coincidence.
Bob Higgins, director of the Somerset County Emergency Management Agency, said all the training done by the hazmat teams proved valuable Tuesday in a flawless response.

"This has been a combined effort between Somerset and Kennebec counties for a three- or four-year period for this," Higgins said. "These are trained specialists and they've put in a lot of time and effort in obtaining this training to provide protection for the citizens.

"Overall, it's gone real well -- you see it right here," he said. "The training always pays off."

Doug Harlow -- 861-9244 -- dharlow[at]

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