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Guidelines for Workplaces Identifying and Handling Anthrax and Other Biological Agent Threats

  • Issued: October 31, 2001
  • Content last reviewed: October 2009

Recently facilities in the United States and Canada have received suspicious packages and materials. There have been news reports of human cases of anthrax infections in the United States. This has raised a concern that anthrax and possibly other biological organisms are being used as agents of terrorism. However, Dr. Colin D'Cunha, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health, advises that there have been no confirmed human cases of anthrax in Ontario to date.

Notwithstanding that there have been no cases of anthrax in Ontario, the appearance of any suspicious letter or package has come to be viewed as a potential threat to the safety of those in its vicinity. Usually the suspicious letter or package has proven harmless. However, the few instances outside of Canada where this has not been the case, suggest that the only safe course of action is to take precautions against possible hazard.

The Ministry of Labour has received a number of enquiries from workplaces regarding procedures for dealing with such suspicious packages. To assist in these enquiries, the ministry has developed the following guidelines in conjunction with Emergency Measures Ontario (EMO) and the Chief Medical Officer of Health.

How to Identify Suspicious Packages and Letters

Some characteristics of suspicious packages and letters include the following:

  • Excessive, inadequate or missing postage
  • Restrictive markings such as "confidential, personal, to be opened by"
  • Inappropriate Air Mail and Special Delivery stickers
  • Foreign mail from politically unstable or hostile countries
  • Postmark different from return address location
  • Notations like "special delivery or air mail"
  • Hand written or poorly typed addresses
  • Incorrect titles
  • Titles but no names
  • Incomplete or incorrect destination address
  • Misspelling of words or common names
  • Oily stains or discolorations on wrapper
  • No return address or one that's indecipherable
  • Excessive weight
  • Foul or chemical odours
  • Rigid or bulky envelope
  • Protruding wires or tinfoil
  • Leaking items
  • Lopsided or lumpy envelope or package
  • Excessive securing material such as masking tape, string etc.
  • Visual distractions
  • Ticking sound
  • Marked with threatening message

Suspicious Unopened Letter or Package:

  1. DO NOT SHAKE or empty the contents of any suspicious envelope or package.
  2. Put the envelope or package on a stable surface.
  3. Then LEAVE the room and CLOSE the door, or section off the area to prevent others from entering (i.e., keep others away).
  4. WASH your hands with soap and water to prevent spreading any powder to your face.
  5. Report the incident to your immediate supervisor, building security official and call 911 or the local emergency contact number. Follow the instructions of emergency response officials.
  6. LIST all people who were in the room or area when this suspicious letter or package was recognized. Keep this list as it may be requested by local public health authorities for follow-up investigation and advice.

Opened Envelope with Powder or Powder Spills Out onto Surface:

  1. DO NOT try to CLEAN UP the powder. CAREFULLY COVER the spilled contents immediately with anything (e.g., clothing, paper, trash can, etc.) and do not remove this cover.
  2. Then LEAVE the room and CLOSE the door, or section off the area to prevent others from entering (i.e., keep others away).
  3. WASH your hands with soap and water to prevent spreading any powder to your face.
  4. Report the incident to your immediate supervisor, building security official and call 911 or the local emergency contact number. Follow the instructions of emergency response officials.
  5. REMOVE contaminated clothing as soon as possible and place in a plastic bag, or some other container that can be sealed. This clothing bag should be given to the emergency responders for proper handling.
  6. SHOWER with soap and water as soon as possible. Do Not Use Bleach Or Other Disinfectant On Your Skin.
  7. LIST all people who were in the room or area when this suspicious letter or package was opened. Keep this list as it may be requested by local public health authorities for follow-up investigation and advice.

Threat of Contamination by Airborne Anthrax or Other Biological Agent:

  1. Turn off local fans or ventilation units in the area.
  2. LEAVE area immediately.
  3. CLOSE the door, or section off the area to prevent others from entering (i.e., keep others away).
  4. Report the incident to your immediate supervisor, building security official and call 911 or the local emergency contact number. Follow the instructions of emergency response officials.
  5. SHUT down air handling system in the building, if possible.
  6. LIST all people who were in the room or area. Keep this list as it may be requested by local public health authorities for follow-up investigation and advice.
Facts on the health effects of Anthrax may be found at:

Health Canada:

Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care:

Updates to these guidelines will be posted when available.

For assistance with a suspected anthrax or biological threat, call 911 or your local emergency contact number.