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Terrorism specialist advises awareness

Terrorism on the home front should be taken seriously, but it shouldn't become all-consuming or a daily source of worry locally, Pasco County Health Department bioterrorism specialist Pat Gardner said Tuesday.

Gardner, speaking at a Pasco Regional Medical Center forum on terrorism, said Pasco County is likely not a target for any kind of terrorism _ biological, nuclear or otherwise _ but residents can be a little more aware and take a few precautions, just in case.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Gardner said Pasco officials have responded to more than 300 reports of suspicious items, such as white powder, from fearful residents. So far, not one of the investigations has turned up disease-bearing material, he said.

In one instance, a company, as a gimmick, had included over-the-counter pain medication in a direct-mail pitch. The pills were crushed in a postal machine, and earlier this month a county team was called to investigate the resulting powder at a Port Richey postal facility, Gardner said.

In another false alarm, a neighbor left some cleaning powder in his friend's mailbox but forgot to tell him. Again, experts were called.

Each time a response team is activated can cost up to $4,000, Gardner said.

"There are a lot of people looking for anthrax and none has been found in the Tampa Bay area," Gardner said. "None has been found in Pasco County."

But although there have been plenty of false alerts, Gardner said the threat still is serious and residents can help in the fight by taking extra care in their everyday lives.

At home, people can help by washing their hands after handling mail, just in case it came in contact with contaminated mail along the way. Keep a disaster kit handy and have a plan that includes a gathering place in case a family is separated and an out-of-state contact _ such as a close family friend or relative _ everyone can keep in touch with in time of disaster, be it terrorism or a hurricane.

On the road, people can take extra care in traveling, report suspicious activity to the authorities and keep a close eye on baggage.

Gardner also talked to hospital workers at the medical center about symptoms of bioterrorism agents and how to recognize and report unusual cases.

Gardner said he has spoken to several civic organizations and would accept invitations to speak at clubs, organizations and other gatherings where he could share information about the new threats facing the country.

"The more people that know, the better," Gardner said. "I just hope we can spread the word and get as much information out there as we can."

Terrorism forum

A terrorism forum is scheduled on Pasco's west side at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Heart Institute at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point, with Health Department director Dr. Marc Yacht and Pasco Disaster Preparedness director Michele Baker. Required reservations can be made by calling (727) 869-5498.