They'll Test Anything!

As reports of anthrax contamination continue on the East Coast, hysterical Arizonans have given authorities everything from a vacuum cleaner to a moldy orange juice can to a copy of Playboy, asking that the items be tested for the deadly bacteria.

And the state's Department of Health Services is complying -- even with the request to test the white powder that flew out of a package of Pillsbury crescent rolls when the tube of raw dough was cracked open.

"There's a lot of anxiety out there," says Bill Slanta, chief of the DHS office of microbiology.

That's an understatement. In the weeks since the anthrax scare, FBI and local police officials from all over the state have turned over more than 700 samples to DHS; the governor recently gave the agency $350,000 to cover overtime costs and increase security at the state lab in downtown Phoenix.

Most of the items are letters and envelopes. And last week, DHS accepted 135 swabs taken from equipment at Phoenix's main post office. (Results should be available by the end of the week.) But the list of objects tested -- so far all negative -- includes a telephone, full laundry baskets and garbage cans, a pair of brown suede shoes, a bunch of bananas and dirt from under a rose bush.

Victor Waddell, a state microbiologist who has interrupted his research to do hands-on testing -- gloved hands -- figured the white substance in the soil was fertilizer or lime. But he tested it anyway. There is no federal or state law or even a written policy requiring DHS to test everything it receives (guidelines are now in the works, DHS officials say), but the agency agreed at the beginning of the anthrax scare to test every specimen. Generally, local law enforcement assesses the risk and decides whether the item will be tested. Each item is assigned a number and catalogued for the FBI and Arizona Department of Public Safety. Because the items are considered evidence in an ongoing investigation, DHS officials refused to say which law enforcement agency submitted which samples for testing, or why.

Testing procedures vary widely from state to state. Some, such as Colorado, have tested only a handful of items, says DHS spokesman Michael Murphy.

In Arizona, "it's got to be pretty suspicious with some sort of substance, like a powder," says local FBI spokesman Ed Hall.

And if it's fairly obvious that the powder is, say, flour on raw bread dough?

"If it's a powder, how do you know if you don't test it?" Hall asks.

But David Engelthaler, DHS' "bioterrorism coordinator," concedes most of what his agency tests isn't really considered a threat to public safety.

"If we only tested stuff where there was an actual threat . . . then we only would have tested a very few samples," Engelthaler says, adding that most of what DHS is testing is merely "unusual or suspicious."

In any case, the state laboratory has been running full-bore for weeks, with punchy microbiologists collecting war stories along with specimens. They shared those stories during a recent tour of the lab, which is normally used for tuberculosis testing.

"We had one yesterday that was pretty good. It was a Snoopy toy -- you press the hand and it plays a song," Waddell says. The toy was apparently left as a Halloween prank; there was some Halloween candy sent in for testing, too.

That morning, they test powder on a $50 bill.

"It's probably coke," another microbiologist says, laughing.

"That's a barometer of how anxious people are, that they're giving up their cold, hard cash," Murphy adds. All samples are considered police evidence and are not immediately returned; a storage room at DHS is piled with rubber tubs full of negative specimens.

"It would be nice if we could keep this sample," Waddell remarks, bent over the bill with a pair of long tweezers in each hand, boxes of Ziploc bags piled on the counter behind him.

The $50 reminds Slanta of the call DHS received from a law enforcement agency to test close to $250,000 in cash. Slanta agreed to test just a few of the bills.

The microbiologists fondly recall the day the latest issue of Playboy magazine hit the bioguard hood. (DHS also received a copy of Martha Stewart Living. Turns out the glossy magazines often contain cornstarch between the pages as a byproduct of the production process.)

"I tested the Playboy," says microbiologist Graham Briggs. "It's a lot better than testing bananas."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at