White powder found at school

The powder, which police believe is cornstarch, has been sent to the state Department of Health for testing

By: John Tredrea
   A white powdery substance was found by Hopewell Elementary School’s librarian on her office desk early Wednesday morning, leading school and police officials to evacuate the building briefly.
   The powder, which police believe is cornstarch, has been sent to the state Department of Health for testing.
   "The powder doesn’t appear to be anything harmful," township Lt. Bruce Carnall said Wednesday afternoon. "It appears to be paper shavings. We’ve asked the (township) department of health to expedite the testing."
   Hopewell Elementary Principal Michael Fitzpatrick said, "We believe the substance came from an envelope sent by a nationally known book distributor." Mr. Fitzpatrick said even though the ordinary-looking envelope identified the sender as Barnes & Noble, the school district exercised "caution and closed down the library and the office in which the letter was opened."
   The powder was found shortly before 9 a.m. Very soon afterward, the school was evacuated and its HVAC (heating-ventilation-air-conditioning) system shut down until the township police and health departments had collected the powder and disinfected the area in which it was found. The library has its own HVAC system, so the shut-down did not affect the rest of the building.
"We will continue to keep the library and library office closed until we hear from the state," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
   Lt. Carnall said book distributors often use powder resembling that found in Hopewell Elementary. "It’s cornstarch, actually," the lieutenant said. "They use it to keep glossy pages from sticking together inside the package, which they sometimes will if the weather gets much hotter or cooler over a short time span."
   The lieutenant said that, during last fall’s wave of concern about anthrax, township police collected, or were brought, a number of samples that looked very much like what was found in the school library. All those samples were tested and none were harmful, he said.
   Mr. Fitzpatrick said students and staff spent part of yesterday morning in "safe, designated areas outside the building" while the police and health departments did their work inside. Lt. Carnall said it did not take long to complete that work, and that students and staff were outside the building about as long as they would be during a routine fire drill.
   Actually, according to a school staff member, a fire drill already had been planned for close to the time the evacuation took place, so the children were told it was a fire drill.
   Mr. Fitzpatrick said that, under normal police and health department procedure, the powdery substance found in the school would have been designated of "low suspicion and would not even have required lab analysis. But since this is a school building, the state Department of Health will have the sample analyzed strictly as a precaution."
   A letter explaining the event was sent home to parents with Hopewell Elementary children Wednesday.