Minnesota Department of Health statement regarding testing of substance found in Pine County Courthouse envelopes

News Release
November 22, 2013

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Minnesota Department of Health statement regarding testing of substance found in Pine County Courthouse envelopes

As part of Minnesota’s public health response capabilities, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Public Health Laboratory has the capability to examine materials for potential chemical or biological threats. Several times a year, MDH partners with law enforcement organizations to investigate packages or envelopes for signs of potential chemical or biological threats.

When MDH conducts this work, it is often within the context of an ongoing law enforcement investigation and so the department is limited in its ability to share information. However, MDH is able to share information to dispel rumors and help those involved understand the situation and any protective actions they may want to take. To that end, we are able to share the following statement regarding recent developments in Pine County:

On Tuesday, the Pine County Courthouse received six letters that were found to contain an unknown powdery substance. Law enforcement officials transported the letters to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Public Health Laboratory for testing. MDH tests ruled out bioterrorism organisms under standard protocols established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Pine County officials were told of these results.

After this initial screening, the MDH laboratory ran additional tests in an attempt to identify the substance. Those tests indicated the presence of one particular kind of Bacillus bacteria, but the tests were not able to differentiate between related species called Bacillus thuringiensis and Bacillus cereus.

Both bacteria occur naturally in the environment and are often found in the soil and on plants. They are very closely related and can be difficult to tell apart. While testing will continue to determine which kind of bacteria was present in the letters, neither is considered a significant health risk based on the facts of this situation. Studies have not found adverse health effects from Bacillus thuringiensis. People who consume food contaminated with Bacillus cereus may experience foodborne illness symptoms including diarrhea and vomiting – usually within 24-48 hours of exposure. In addition, someone with a recent eye injury could possibly experience additional eye irritation from exposure to Bacillus cereus. Other types of exposure to this kind of bacteria would not be expected to have health effects.

People in the Pine County Courthouse on Tuesday were advised to contact their doctor if they had any unusual health symptoms, and to further reduce their potential exposure by washing their clothes and showering. There are no additional recommendations at this time. As always, people who have questions or concerns are encouraged to talk with their doctor or clinic.

State and local health officials will be sharing information including final test results once available. The process is expected to take two weeks.