Beware of Snail Mail: 10 Signs of a Suspicious Package

Cardboard boxes on a conveyor belt in a warehouse.

If you are anything like me, you love getting mail. There is something about opening the mailbox to find a postcard from a loved one or a care-package with homemade cookies that can make your day.

But not all packages are filled with love. Sometimes people send items and materials through the mail that are dangerous. These suspicious packages could contain a bomb, biological, chemical, or radiological threats. You could come into contact with a suspicious package at home, at work, or when you are out in public.

It is important for you to prepare and know how to identify a suspicious package and what you can do to stay safe.Suspicious Package Thumbnail

  1. Look at the handwriting. Suspicious packages are often addressed by hand in all capital letters, or with cut-and-paste lettering.
  2. Pay attention to the return address. Suspicious packages often do not have a return address, or they may be postmarked from a city that does not match the return address.
  3. Note the postage. A package with excessive postage (more than was necessary for a package to reach its destination) should be treated as suspicious. Sometimes suspicious packages are delivered with no postage.
  4. Wrapping matters. If a package is unprofessionally wrapped with excessive packing material such as tape and/or string it should be treated as suspicious. It may also be labeled with restrictive endorsements – Fragile: Handle with Care, Rush: Do Note Delay, Personal, Confidential, or Do Not X-Ray.
  5. Use your senses. Be aware if the package has an unknown liquid or powder seeping through the wrapping or a strange odor. Do NOT sniff, taste, or touch the package or ask others to do the same.
  6. Hands off. Do not open the item or shake or empty the contents.
  7. Keep your distance. If you think you are dealing with a suspicious package, leave the room and close the door behind you. It is important to section off or isolate the package so other people do not enter the area.
  8. Don’t run away.  Leaving the area could potentially spread dangerous or deadly materials to other locations, including your home.  The authorities will determine if you need to undergo decontamination, medical treatment, or simply monitoring for any side-effects.
  9. Call 9-1-1. Use a land line to call 9-1-1. Do not use a cell phone or device that sends a signal because it could trigger an explosive device.
  10. Stay calm. Listen to your intuition and do not worry about embarrassment if you are wrong about a package being suspicious. It is always better to be safe than sorry.


Autism and Preparedness

Father and Son

There is a new neighbor on Sesame Street. Her name is Julia and she’s helping dispel decades-old stereotypes about autism. Julia is a little girl with autism and her move to “where the air is sweet” coincided with April being Autism Awareness Month. Our new neighbor is helping us think about the challenges of parenting a child of autism. One of those challenges is preparing children with special needs for public health emergencies.

Children are affected by disasters differently than adults. Mental stress from a disaster can be harder on children because they may not understand what is going on around them and don’t have experience bouncing back from difficult situations. Having autism can further compound this stress for a child and their family.

Any parent of a child with special needs will tell you that it takes patience and perseverance to accomplish even everyday tasks. Preparing your child for something as potentially disruptive as a natural disaster might sound stressful or maybe even seem impossible depending on the exact needs of your child. Here are some tips we hope will help.

Small change…big problem

As you are well aware of, minor change of plans can cause big problems for children on the autism spectrum. While it might seem daunting to imagine how responding to an emergency such as a tornado warning might impact your son or daughter, thinking through all of the potential complications can help you prepare for your child’s specific needs.

Prepare for immediate needs long before disaster

Start by assembling the same tools and resources as you would for any child. That includes creating a basic emergency supplies kit and making a family emergency plan. Then add a few items specific for your child’s particular needs. You’ll want to include:

  • Medical ID for your child
  • At least a 3-day supply of all medicines
  • List of your child’s triggers and helps for behavior issues
  • Names and contact information for all doctors and therapists
  • Complete list of your child’s health records
  • Names and serial numbers for medical equipment

Don’t forget that it’s important to keep all your kits and supplies, including medical devices, in a handy location. Also, if your child with autism is able to communicate and to follow instructions, give them a developmentally-appropriate version of your family’s emergency plan.

Wear your inner strength on the outside

Your child with autism may be particularly in tune with the moods of the adults around them and may sense stress, anxiety, and frustration, and then mimic the mood or behavior. The best way to prepare for being able to express your inner strength is to regularly take care of yourself. Utilize respite care services and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Regularly reaching out to your network of friends, relatives, and/or co-workers for assistance will help you practice in case of an emergency situation.

All these things can help to give your special needs child a sense of security and safety, before, during, and after the disaster.


Behind the Clipboard: Adventures of a Lab Inspector

Lab inspectors

You might think being a laboratory inspector is a boring job – the kind of work that’s suited to glasses-wearing, clipboard-carrying types who hate adventure and love enforcing rules. However, during a recent sit-down with a small group of CDC inspectors, I discovered their jobs are anything but dull.Select agents are biological agents and toxins that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety, to animal and plant health, or to animal or plant products. CDC’s Division of Select Agents and Toxins regulates those labs that handle germs and poisons that can cause disease in humans.

The inspectors I spoke with are tasked with keeping tabs on some of the nation’s most critical research laboratories – those that are registered to handle many of the world’s deadliest pathogens and poisons, like anthrax, plague, smallpox, and ricin. The lifesaving research done in these labs protects our country from unfathomable threats. It’s the inspectors’ job to make sure this critical work is done as safely and securely as possible according to government regulations.

Many of the inspectors are introverts, and all take their work extremely seriously, recognizing that lives are at stake. They travel to registered labs all over the country. They observe and ask lots of questions. They check every piece of paper. They watch hours of surveillance video. They are very, very meticulous.

But this doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense of humor about what it really takes – down in the trenches – to keep the lifesaving research done in these labs safe and secure. Here are some surprising things they told me about their work.

Trouble with travelFour biosafety lab levels

Inspections generally last about three days, and inspectors go out to sites about once a month on average, but that can vary. One inspector notes that she conducted 26 inspections in a single year. Traveling so much means a lot of waiting around in airports, but sometimes the trip takes a turn toward the unexpected.

“We were flying – about 100 miles from landing – when a volcano erupted in Alaska,” she recalled. “We had to turn around and were stranded in Seattle for three days. Later, I was on an inspection where we had an earthquake on a Tuesday and a hurricane that Friday.” She laughed. “I’ve become known for being natural disaster prone.”

Keeping it clean

If you’re an inspector, you might have to shower. A lot.  At some labs, anyone exiting the lab has to strip down, take a shower, and change clothes. One lab inspector said he showered out a total of 17 times during a single inspection.

“One time,” said another inspector, “The power cut off as we were showering out. We had three men there – one waiting to go in, one in, and one just exiting the shower. We couldn’t see anything, so we all just stood there, naked and in the dark, for forty-five minutes.”

Animal adventures

Labs sometimes keep animals on the premises, and it’s the inspector’s job to check on every animal in the facility and make sure it’s being properly taken care of. Whether it’s inspecting an aquarium full of Australian cone snails or a cage of chinchillas, this can lead to some interesting exchanges.

“I learned that you can’t put on a Tyvek [protective] suit before going into a room with an elk,” reported one inspector. “They hate the noise the fabric makes when you move.” In fact, he added, you also can’t wear any kind of powered respirator around them without causing a panic.

Food, glorious food

Labs do a lot of work to protect our food supply. Sometimes there are huge set-ups that mimic a factory floor: a large flume for washing lettuce, or a skid that can process 800 pounds of peanut butter. The inspectors put on their heavy suits and go in to check the details. “You have to figure out how the regulations apply to every situation, no matter how unique it is,” they say.

“I’m used to seeing pipettes and safety cabinets,” said one inspector. “But once I went into a lab that had dog biscuits and muffins all laid out for testing. It smelled terrific.”

A passion to protect

I asked the inspectors for final thoughts on what they do. “The people who work here are some of the most dedicated people I know,” one answered right away. “They work hard.”

“I think the impact of our work is important to talk about,” said another. “The impact of this work is to allow important research to be done. Research that involves risk. And our job is to allow this work to continue with as little risk as possible.”

All the lab inspectors were proud of the relationships they’ve managed to build over time. “We used to be seen as the enemy, the ‘men in black’ coming to judge you. But it’s not that way as much anymore,” an inspector told me. “At the end of the day, we’re here to help. We want to work alongside labs to make sure their workers and the public stay safe. I think everyone is recognizing that.”

Don’t Be Scared, Be Prepared!

Little girl in witch costume playing in autumn park. Child having fun at Halloween trick or treat. Kids trick or treating. Toddler kid with jack-o-lantern. Children with candy bucket in fall forest.

Jack-o’-lanterns glow on the front porch. Children wait anxiously in their costumes, ready to go house-to-house collecting buckets of treats. For kids (and, yes, adults too), Halloween can be a time of excitement and imagination. But as a parent, you need to protect your little ones from some very real dangers. What if they get separated from you? Are they prepared to safely cross the street? Did you remind them to not eat the candy before you check it?

Glow in the DarkTrick or treat checklist.

From chilling tales to creepy costumes, lots of things can be scary on Halloween night. But the real danger for children is walking in the dark. On average, children are more than twice as likely to be hit by a car and killed on Halloween than on any other day of the year. Make sure children know the rules of the road and are as visible as possible at night.

Here are some tips to help you prepare:

  • Travel together. Avoid letting children walk alone. Always walk in large groups with a responsible adult
  • Brighten up. Fasten reflective tape to kids’ costumes and treat bags so drivers can see them at night. Brightly-colored costumes are better for kids
  • Look both ways. Tell your child to look both ways before crossing the street and to use crosswalks
  • Stay on sidewalks. Walk on sidewalks whenever possible, or on the far edge of the road facing traffic to stay safe
  • See and be seen. Give children a flashlight or glow stick to hold while trick-or-treating to help them see, and to help others see them while they walk – never run! – from house to house

Caution with Costumes!Trick or treat safety kit.

Your little princess or goblin is itching to hit the trick-or-treat trail. Their costume looks spook-tacular… but is it safe? The right costume will allow your child to see and move safely while they’re out and about.

Using makeup instead of masks can help kids watch the action around them. When painting little faces, always test make-up in a small area first, and remove it before bedtime to prevent possible skin and eye irritation.

Avoid trips and falls by making sure costumes and shoes are well fitted. Swords, knives, and other costume accessories should be short, soft, and flexible. For extra safety, slip an emergency contact information card in your child’s pocket or treat bucket in case they get lost or separated from the group.

While beautiful, candles and luminaries can be a Halloween hazard. Check that everyone’s costumes are flame-resistant, and don’t walk near anything that’s lit. Use battery operated lights whenever you can to keep others safe.

No Tricks, Only Treats

As children’s candy buckets fill up, tiny fingers may struggle to resist temptation: “Just one piece will be okay…”

Or is it? Remind your trick-or-treaters not to eat anything until they get home and you can inspect it. Feed your children dinner or a snack to keep them from wanting to pilfer the treats while they’re out.

Bellyaches are no fun! While inspecting the candy, look for evidence of tampering, make sure it’s in the original wrapper, and throw away treats that look homemade. Does your child have food allergies? Don’t forget to check all the labels.

Have a Fa-boo-lous Halloween!

Halloween is about making memories: haunted houses, carving pumpkins, costumes, and the search for full-size candy bars. Keeping children safe throughout the festivities depends on everyone – parents and kids, drivers and pedestrians – being thoughtful, attentive, and careful.

Visit the CDC website for more tips on how you can prepare, and have a fun and safe Halloween!


Is there an unlocked gun in your house?

That is the question Tara Haelle, the American Academy of Pediatricians, and the Brady Center for the Prevention of Gun Violence want you to ask when your child goes to play at someone else’s home.

Is there an unlocked gun in your house?

I live in South Carolina, which has a pretty solid culture of guns and hunting. Many of our friends and neighbors are gun owners. Most of those are responsible gun owners. Accidents still happen. Fair warning to parents of my kids’ friends. I will be asking.

Tragically, I can avoid the social awkwardness of asking with a bit of personal history. A childhood neighbor of mine accidentally shot and killed a friend of his making it socially acceptable for me to fret.

It is all about managing real risks for my children. If you have a pool, I’m going to  evaluate your home’s safety differently. If you have guns, same thing. Hell, I own big dogs. You should probably ask about them before sending your kid over here.

Filed under: This Mortal Coil Tagged: guns, Linkonomicon, parenting, safety

Drowning Can Be Subtle

I suspect that people at our pool judge me for being that parent that’s too distracted watching his kids. It makes me an even worse conversationalist than usual. The social norm is that the kids play and the adults socialize, after all, there is an admirably diligent lifeguard. I am a quadcopter drone of a parent at the pool and beach for two reasons. One, I like playing with my kids (they are more interesting than you – I have data). Two, drowning doesn’t look like drowning:

The Instinctive Drowning Response—so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind. – Mario Vittone


Filed under: This Mortal Coil Tagged: drowning, Linkonomicon, parenting, pools, safety, swimming