Readers Respond to Anthrax Threat

Recent exposures to anthrax have sparked a mass hysteria among readers, who responded aggressively to Steven Milloy’s most recent "Junk Science" column, which emphasized the improbability of terrorists effectively using anthrax as a mass-terror weapon.

Many readers were convinced that the media is creating an exaggerated fear which has developed into unnecessary panic. Others believe that it is better to be "safe than sorry" and feel that the mere fact that terrorism has progressed this far is reason enough for Americans to be afraid.

Here's a sample of this week's mail:

— I'd like to congratulate you on your excellent article on anthrax. I'm a full time nuclear, biological, and chemical defense officer for the Maryland National Guard, and a biologist by education. Every time I hear the subject of anthrax discussed on television, I'm concerned about the level of ignorance demonstrated by the media, and many public officials.... The true crisis we face as a nation is that we are ruled by a bunch of scientifically illiterate lawyers, and informed by even more ignorant journalists. Thank you for not divulging details of the particle size necessary to cause pulmonary anthrax and the appearance of weaponized anthrax. It makes it very easy to tell the credible threats from the hoaxes when perpetrators don't know these details.

— The web site for the Department of Defense seems to contradict every point in your
article. Can you explain the discrepancy?

— It would seem that someone who sniffed drugs would be very susceptible to this. Shouldn't the government warn drug users that sniffing powdered drugs is more dangerous than ever?

— In addition to your flu season concerns, the other downside of "scaring people into positive action" is that it's the "Chicken Little" approach. If  the media continue to frighten everyone, there will be a time when public reaction to a legitimate threat will be "Yeah, right. Whatever."

— We in the United States have always, and will probably always be under a great threat for acts of terrorism. And we would be naive to believe anything to the contrary.

— I've even freaked myself out lately because I've got a seasonal cold/flu thing that's been coming on for several days now...and that's mostly because of the fact that I've been on PERSONAL HIGH ALERT since Sept. 11...I'm more worried about needing to see a psychiatrist than I am about needing to be screened for anthrax.

— And yet, the way news broadcasts are being reported lately, you'd think we were being told to live our lives to the fullest, because armies of terrorists are in the states, and they will be marching into major metro areas tomorrow and killing us all with truck bombs and polluting our water  supplies, and there's not a damn thing we can do about it.

—  Why not go on Jay Leno and snort up a couple of lines of anthrax in powder form on the air.  Since you seem to think it is really no big deal, put your nose where your mouth is.

— So the New York City case is just a coincidence? Weaponization may be tough for a mass infection, but the individuals contracting the disease now don't care if they have a lot of company on their way to the great hereafter. Someone is infecting people in the U.S. deliberately, and I think this is a hell of a lot more scary than the Tylenol poisonings of the 80's.

— All the scientific points in your article are valid, but when someone contracts anthrax a couple of blocks from me, I am going to be alarmed. You can bet if I get flu symptoms, I am going to be very nervous.

— Poor science and overblown claims occur with disturbing frequency. I am very skeptical of what I read in popular magazines and papers and what comes over the TV or radio in the way of  "science."... However, when it comes to the recent rash of anthrax exposures... your various positions have been and continue to be, wrong. There have been four cases of anthrax that have been reported in the span of one week... This is serious. Make no mistake about it. While it may not lead to large-scale death or even large-scale exposures the fact that a known infectious agent is being deliberately released in American cities is of extraordinary importance. I'm not favoring a panic or a public health scare... However, it is still effective in some cases, concern and the strictest scrutiny is warranted.

— In your latest article you classify the obvious and deliberate dispersal of Anthrax in Florida as a "limited bio-crime" at most. Now there is a confirmed exposure in New York City. Wow, that is some limit. I think its safe to say you were wrong about the "limited bio-crime".

— It is true--mailing anthrax spores to victims does not make for effective aerosolization. But the fact is, whomever is responsible for the attacks has the opportunity — barring capture — to fine-tune delivery over time. And it is quite likely that the terrorists behind the attacks will do just that.

— Growing anthrax spores is not a trivial undertaking. That the terrorists are this far along should be viewed as terrifying.

— It seems that most, if not all, experts in this matter contend that the likeliness of such attacks is reduced for various reasons, some if which you have listed. One of them being that more than half the technical battle perhaps is to "powderize" anthrax so it can be used as a weapon to begin with. Do you not feel that the recent cases in Florida and New York prove that at least this major hurdle has already been overcome by would-be or current bio-terrorists?

—I am curious, though, about where you got your facts about the potency of anthrax. The reason I ask is that nobody else is reporting this and I think it is something that people should know. If your facts are correct, why aren't other media outlets letting the public know this?

— I want to thank you for being there to dispute the embellished imaginations of those who feel the need to paint a picture of what COULD happen. I have been nervous about this subject, but I find that as I read articles written by doctors, health administrators and others outside of the "analyst" category, I am becoming not only more educated about this disease but more comforted in my control over this situation. May you endeavor in your mission to seek out the half-truths and the creative tales in order to
bring some sanity and security back to the American people.

— We didn't think our own airliners were going to fly into our WTC either. Better safe than sorry.