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Public Safety Guidelines for Handling Suspicious Mail


February 4, 2004

You may have read recent news accounts of a case in which the poison ricin was detected on a postage sorting machine in a U.S. Senator's office in Washington , D.C. I want to take this opportunity to remind you about the commitment to safety on our campus. Below, you will find information collected from on- and off-campus experts about:

  • how to identify potentially suspect mail or packages
  • what to do if you are concerned about a package or possible exposure
  • good sources for more information


The Columbia University Public Safety department continues its customary efforts to ensure the security of the campus. The department is in regular contact with the New York City Police Department and other law enforcement agencies to remain informed about issues of concern. The eyes and ears of the University community continue to be the most important factor in maintaining a secure campus. Please do not hesitate to call Public Safety at 212-854-5555 on the Morningside campus, x99 from a campus Rolm phone, or 212-305-8100 at the Medical Center , if you encounter any unusual activity on campus.

Health and Environmental Safety

Columbia is in regular contact with the New York City Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to monitor the latest information and advisories on a range of issues. Our environmental health and safety practices have incorporated CDC recommendations wherever they apply, and will continue to do so if any new recommendations are issued. Similarly, Health Services medical staff members receive updated training when necessary, and would work closely with government officials in an emergency.

Mail and Package Concerns

In 2001, we undertook a thorough review of our safety procedures in the Mail Services department (including student and administrative mail). We reviewed the CDC recommendations for high-volume, highly automated mailrooms and implemented changes appropriate for the relatively small scale of our mail processing operations. Our mail center staff members are trained in the secure handling of incoming and outgoing mail, and we conduct regular reviews of safety procedures in accordance with recommendations from the CDC, the U.S. Postal Service and the New York City Police Department.

We continue to monitor incoming mail, but remind you that you are in the best position to assess whether mail you receive is suspect. Please remain alert for signs that might raise concern and report any suspicious package to Public Safety, which responds promptly to all such reports, turning them over immediately to the New York City Police Department.

Following are some recommendations about how to identify suspicious packages.

Look for a combination of the following indicators of packages that may be dangerous:

  • No return address
  • Return address that does not match the postal stamp
  • Unfamiliar return address or sender
  • Excessive postage
  • Stains or discolorations (may indicate presence of a substance other than paper)
  • Strange odor
  • Rigid or bulky packaging
  • Lopsided, empty, or uneven envelope
  • Excessive tape or string
  • Address to titles or departments without names
  • Incorrect titles
  • "Confidential," "Personal," "Private," or similar restrictive markings
  • Misspelled words
  • Uneven lettering
  • Badly typed or written address
  • Excessive weight
  • Protruding wires or aluminum foil
  • Ticking sound

If you receive a suspect letter or package:

  1. Do not handle the piece of mail or package suspected of contamination. Do not move the package; don't shake it or smell it.
  2. If the package has been opened or an unidentifiable substance spills out of it, do not attempt to clean up or have any additional contact with the substance or packaging.
  3. Leave the package where it is. Everyone present should leave the room.
  4. Call Public Safety: x99 from any Rolm phone, 212-854-5555 on the Morningside campus, or 212-305-8100 at the Medical Center .
  5. Everyone who has touched the piece of mail or package should wash his or her exposed skin -- hands and arms -- with warm water and soap.
  6. Provide a list of everyone who came into contact with the package to Public Safety.
  7. Follow all instructions of law enforcement and medical personnel.

If you believe you may have been exposed to a contaminant:

  1. Call Public Safety to seek medical assistance: x99 from any Rolm phone, 212-854-5555 on the Morningside campus, 212-305-8100 at the Medical Center .
  2. Wash your hands with warm water and soap.
  3. Place clothing worn at the time in a plastic bag.
  4. Shower with warm water and soap as soon as possible.
  5. Follow the instructions of medical personnel, including testing and treatment if prescribed.

Important Phone Numbers

To report a suspicious package or any incident or security concern, please call Columbia Public Safety immediately:

x99 from any Rolm phone, 212-854-5555 on the Morningside campus, or 212-305-8100 at the Medical Center .

For general questions about security issues, please contact:

James McShane, Assistant Vice President for Public Safety, at 212-854-6792 or


For general questions about Mail Services, including student and administrative mail, please contact:

Lisa Hogarty, Vice President for Student Services, at 212-854-6638 or


Informational Web Sites

General Updates from Columbia

Health-related Updates from Columbia

United States Post Office Information about Mail Safety

Centers for Disease Control Information about Ricin

U.S. Government Recommendations for Preparedness

Again, we do not believe that there is cause for alarm about exposure to dangerous substances sent through the mail. However, I wanted to share this information to assist you in exercising reasonable caution, and to let you know about the resources available to respond to any concerns.



James F. McShane

Assistant Vice President for Public Safety

Published: Feb 03, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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