anthrax letter

You Found White Powder in your Mail—Is It Anthrax?

by James Walton

Thanks to an anthrax outbreak in Southwestern Russia, 1400 square kilometers of land has been sealed off till November 16 in the Voronezh region of the country.

This incident serves as a stark reminder of the potency and danger of anthrax. While it doesn’t make the news as often as other dangerous chemicals and substances, anthrax is a biological threat that stops you in your tracks, literally and figuratively.

But before we discuss the latest Russian anthrax outbreak, it ought to be clarified: though anthrax has a storied past in the American mail systems of yore, it is a lot different than most people think.

Consequently, there are many sources of confusion regarding how best to deal with anthrax exposure, like: Do you go to the doctor? Do you immediately wash up if you have come into contact with anthrax? And how do you even know if the substance is around you, or if the symptoms have anything to do with anthrax?

The answer to these questions, of course, lies in a better understanding of anthrax. So let’s take an in depth look at this substance and how it has changed over time–becoming a biological agent, weapon of terror, and contaminant across the globe.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    What is Anthrax Powder?

  • 02

    Forms of Anthrax

  • 03

    2001 US Anthrax Attacks

  • 04

    Russian Anthrax Outbreak August 2023

  • 05

    What Else Could that White Powder Be?

  • 06

    Frequently Asked Questions

  • 07

    Final Thoughts

What is Anthrax Powder?

crime scene

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

When you hear the word "anthrax," you probably think of some lab generated bioweapon. The truth is, however, anthrax is a bacterial infection.

More specifically, it is a spore-producing bacterium, known formally as bacillus anthracis, and it most commonly infects herbivorous animals like cattle and sheep. Note that we don’t see many cases in humans, though transmission between animals and humans is possible.

So why is exposure to anthrax such a nerve-racking prospect?

Well, anthrax, to put it bluntly, is a survivor. That means that conditions that kill off most other bacteria do not have the same effect on the bacillus anthracis, which can withstand things like heat, drought, and even disinfectants. As a matter of fact, anthrax spores can survive in soil for weeks in the right conditions.

Forms of Anthrax

Anthrax is a sneaky bacterium that can infect your body in a number of ways–another chief reason that it is such a problem.

Plus, humans have refined anthrax for weaponization, making infection and transmission even easier.

With all of this in mind, let’s look at three types of anthrax infection, including what types of symptoms they present.

Cutaneous Anthrax

anthrax symptoms

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

If anthrax spores come into contact with open wounds or mucous membranes, an infection can occur. As such, cutaneous anthrax treatments using antibiotics are very effective against this kind of infection.


  • Begins with a small, raised, itchy sore resembling an insect bite.

  • The sore develops into a blister, and then an ulcer with a black center.

  • Swelling and redness occurs around the sore.

  • Mild fever and fatigue sets in.

  • Lymph nodes near the sore may become swollen.

Inhalation Anthrax


(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

This is the most lethal type of infection. Though it is rare, this type of infection can rapidly cause rapid respiratory distress and death. Notably, during the 2001 US anthrax attacks, the white powder mailed to senators and media offices was designed to cause this type of infection.

With that said, inhalation is not necessarily a death sentence, as treatment with antibiotics can stop the infection and save your life.


  • Initial symptoms resemble a common cold, including fever, fatigue, cough, and muscle aches.

  • Symptoms progress to severe respiratory distress, with high fever, severe shortness of breath, and chest discomfort.

  • Shock and multiple organ failure can occur rapidly.

Gastrointestinal Anthrax

Though inhalation is more deadly, gastrointestinal anthrax is potentially more painful. By consuming infected meat, the disease can spread inside your gastrointestinal system and even become deadly.

In short, it is not going to be a fun time.


  • Symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and fever.

  • In severe cases, abdominal symptoms can progress to severe abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, and severe diarrhea.

Antibiotics, of course, are the key to dealing with anthrax, and this type of infection is no different.

2001 US Anthrax Attacks

map of mail flow anthrax attacks

Map of mail flow anthrax attacks (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

While the towers were smoldering, we, as Americans, swore that we would “never forget” the largest terrorist attack on American soil that occurred on September 11th, 2001. But twenty years later, there are major parts of that story that have become nothing more than tiny particles in the dust plume of history.

You could argue that some of those particles are the spores of anthrax that laced letters sent all over this nation as part of the attack. As a matter of fact, this argument has been the subject of several think pieces, each with their own theory as to why the Amerithrax attacks–which killed five people and infected seventeen others–have been largely forgotten.

According to Smithsonian magazine, the ensuing “complex FBI investigation” is to blame, as it “resulted in such a confusing outcome that many Americans have lost track of the details.”

FBI anthrax Investigation

Amerithrax investigation (Image courtesy of FBI)

Whatever the reason, the first anthrax letters were not mailed out till the eighteenth of the month. So while we cannot say this event was directly a part of 9/11–or indeed coordinated by the same people–it was undoubtedly part of a sustained effort to terrorize Americans.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that there was a connection between the 9/11 attacks and the perpetrators of Amerithrax, however, given the letters’ contents, which read:

  • 09-11-01








The Leahy letter

The Leahy letter (Image courtesy of FBI)

Left in a mailbox in New Jersey, the letters were sent out to a collection of some of the largest media corporations in the nation. It was clear that the perpetrators were looking to spread the message of fear–this, after all, is how terrorism works.

Recipients included:

  • The New York Post

  • The National Enquirer

  • ABC

  • CBS

  • NBC

Tom Brokaw’s assistant at the time, Casey Chamberlain, was quoted after opening one of the letters, “Here was one letter that looked as if it were written by a child. Something seemed unusual. I'd never seen a letter containing a granular substance. I mentioned the strange letter to my friends.”

The Second Wave

Anthrax investigation continues

The investigation continues... (Image courtesy of FBI)

Sometime after October 9, 2001, two more letters were sent out of a place in Trenton, New Jersey. This next wave of letters was more politically focused. The targets were US senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Though the letters made it to each of them successfully, it was postal workers that ultimately fell ill due to the anthrax.

A total of twenty-two people were infected by anthrax in this coordinated attack–with seven of the victims going on to lose their lives.

Notably, this crisis led to one of the greatest preparedness blunders of all time–with the US government telling citizens to buy sheets of plastic to tape to their windows in order to ward off potential bioweapons, like anthrax.

Looking back on it, it’s hard to distinguish which was the worst move for overall preparedness of a population. Was it having Americans plastic wrap their homes, or subjecting them to the monotonous daily color-coded terror threat indicator on the nightly news? After all, there’s no better way to blunt people’s reaction to an emergency system than ringing that bell every single day.

The Curious Case of Hoaxes

After the anthrax fatalities drew to a merciful close, the letters, unfortunately, kept coming.

This was easily the strangest part of the entire Amerithrax situation. Perpetrators were still sending these letters–and they had to be coming from multiple sources–but none of them contained actual anthrax. Indeed, by the end of January 2002, there had been a whopping 15,000 hoax letters reported in the United States.

All in all, the Amerithrax nightmare is a great example of how much damage a small batch of purified anthrax powder can do. It was so powerful, after all, that it got the Patriot Act signed, convincing the representatives of 300 million Americans to forfeit whole sections of The Bill of Rights.

Russian Anthrax Outbreak August 2023

Russian diagram of anthrax infection

Russian diagram of anthrax infection (Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Even without a coordinated terrorist attack, anthrax outbreaks are possible. Russia provides one example of this.

On August 21st, 2023, Russian governor Alexander Gusev–of the Voronezh region–declared a state of emergency regarding an anthrax outbreak.

As such, an “exhaustive set of preventive and epidemiological measures” have been carried out since the outbreak, with profound consequences, as 1400 square kilometers (540 square miles) have been sealed off for at least three months.

Governor Gusev has taken other actions to stop the spread of this infection, too. He has, for example, decided to temporarily ban the slaughter and movement of cattle, as infected horse meat–as well as the illegal slaughter of unregistered livestock–have been recent sources of anthrax in Russia.

He has also banned the export of dairy, meat products, and animal feed from the region.

How to Prepare for an Anthrax Outbreak

Treatment of anthrax often comes with a prescription for antibiotics, and one of the most popular is doxycycline. Now, you might think that you need a doctor to get your hands on a prescription of doxycycline, but that is just old thinking. There are, after all, many companies that are delivering backup antibiotics to people for travel and emergencies.

The very best of these kits comes from The Wellness Company, who offer a survival kit including doxycycline and four other antibiotics. The kit also includes ivermectin, generic versions of Diflucan, and Zofran–along with a guidebook for usage. Not only is this a great way to prepare for treating anthrax, it also can address a host of other medical issues.

With that said, there are steps you can take to prevent infection in the first place. So if you know there is potential to come into contact with anthrax spores, then check out MIRA Safety’s range of PPE, which can assist in cutaneous, gastrointestinal, and inhalation contamination prevention.

First off is the CM-I01, a rugged full-face respirator that was built for service across a variety of industries and range of uses. These include:

The CM-I01

The  CM-I01

  • home use

  • industrial, marine

  • medical, agricultural

  • chemical/pharmaceutical

  • general preparedness

A full-face respirator like this is going to protect your eyes, nose, and mouth from airborne particulates. As such, it is ideal if you are concerned about anthrax spores.

Of course, if you are exposed to anthrax, you’ll need coverage for all of your exposed skin. Cuts and abrasions are pretty common, after all, and cutaneous anthrax infections come from those spores getting into open wounds.

The first step is to bandage your exposed wounds. Modern first aid is a miracle, so you might as well take advantage of it!

Still have your doubts? If so, then you ought to invest in a MIRA Safety HAZ-SUIT, as this will not only protect you from anthrax, but also all manner of contaminants. Plus, the HAZ-SUIT comes in six different sizes–able to fit someone as small as a four-year-old–so you can outfit the whole family.



All in all, the HAZ-SUIT is the ideal choice for professionals, military units, and civilians the world over. That’s because this product has an indefinite shelf life, so everyone from hardcore preppers to everyday concerned citizens can afford to stock up.

And, of course, it’s worth mentioning that these suits are made right here in the USA.

What Else Could that White Powder Be?

Excellent work today, class. You have learned a lot about the means and consequences of anthrax contamination. But school isn’t quite out of session yet.

Remember: should you be confronted with a strange white powder in a surprising situation, there are many things it could be besides anthrax. (But don’t taste it to find out!)

Let’s review.

Potassium Carbonate

One of the major ingredients in dish soaps, this undiluted powder can cause harm to your skin with direct contact–even damaging organs if you get too much of it inside your body.

China White

You might know this better as fentanyl or any number of synthetic opioids that are killing people all over the world right now. In the US alone, we lost nearly 100,000 Americans to fentanyl in 2021.


This nerve agent is much more than Milton Waddam’s secret ingredient to resort-condemning guacamole. (Is that reference too much of a reach?) Well, in layman's terms, strychnine causes one to suffer powerful spasms and tightening of the muscles, making it almost impossible to breathe air in. This means, of course, that exposure can be fatal.

Fortunately, there is a way to prepare for such situations.

MIRA Safety DETEHIT CWD test strips are designed to detect nerve agents, like strychnine, in the air in as little as two to three minutes. Each pack comes with ten individually wrapped strips, affording you ten opportunities to verify if the air you are breathing is contaminated or not.


The seeds of the castor oil plant contain a powerful toxin, known to us all as ricin.

There have been numerous attacks using ricin all over the world. In 2013, for example, we witnessed ricin attacks through the mail system in DC. And while it didn’t make headline news, a woman was just given twenty-two years in jail for mailing ricin to Donald Trump in 2020.



(Image courtesy of DEA.GOV)

Diego Delgado: “Do you have a dream, George?”

George Jung: “Well, I would if I could get some fucking sleep.”

– Blow

What you do on the weekends with the waitress from Top Golf is your business. But it must be remembered–cocaine is a powerful stimulant that can be deadly at high enough doses.

Therefore, it is not the kind of thing you want to come in contact with by accident.

Bottom line: don’t just assume that a random white powder on your package is dust, sugar, or flour. Take the proper precautions whenever you are confronted with some kind of unknown substance.

Final Thoughts

How weird are we?! Imagine finding a dangerous bacterium like bacillus anthracis and deciding it is something that we should bring into a lab and purify–for the express purpose of weaponizing the substance, no less.

Whether it is found in its natural form, or spread through the air in a purified powder, anthrax is a legitimate biological threat. As such, containing outbreaks of natural anthrax is something that governments all over the world are prepared to do. But that doesn’t mean that we should not be prepared to respond with our own protective measures.

When it comes to unexpected attacks, like those in the mailing system of the US, it is almost impossible for governments and law enforcement to intervene in time. Understanding the symptoms of substances like anthrax and nerve agents is therefore crucial, as this knowledge will help you act quickly in the event of contamination.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does anthrax look like?
What is anthrax powder?