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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 21st October 2011

It is only four days since I blogged about the announcement that an American company is to receive funding from the Department for Homeland Security to help it bring to market a device suitable for small to medium companies to detect any biological threats should they receive white powder through the post.

On Tuesday, I wrote ‘There is a real need for this product because the US government has created it’. And today, from Darlington in the UK, comes a story of just what I had in mind.

The Student Loans Company (SLC) is, according to its website, ‘a UK public sector organisation established to provide financial services, in terms of loans and grants, to over one million students annually’. The question of how the UK should be financing its university and other higher education was a major political topic of the first year or so of the coalition government creating a great deal of controversy and several, sometimes violent, street protests.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

In one of these, the car carrying the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall had paint thrown at it after some protesters broke away from the main group. So, the principle of a company giving loans to finance education and then obtaining repayment after that education has ended is unpopular for many people.

And, of course, there is always the possibility of an individual bearing a grudge against the company either for the way a loan application has been handled or the perceived pressure being applied to achieve repayment. Take the two together and it is clear that there will be a good few people who bear ill will towards the SLC. And it should be no surprise if one of those people turns that ill will into action.

Today at the SLC’s Darlington office an employee opened an envelope that had arrived in the post and found that it contained white powder. When the employee reported feeling unwell the emergency services were called. The employee was reported to be ‘recovering’ after receiving medical treatment but no more details were available. Given that the police very quickly established that the powder was not dangerous, it seems possible that the employee may have suffered the effects of stress after discovering the powder.

The management of SLC evacuated the building and sent all 700 employees home for the rest of the day. It was later announced that normal working would resume from the following shift. The police say they will be undertaking detailed analysis of the powder to try and identify its source in the hope that may help them find the sender.

It is quite a pleasant surprise to find the matter being dealt with in such a rational way by the authorities. It appears to have been the SLC management’s decision to close the building rather than an order from the police. I can only speculate what would have happened if this office had been in Des Moines not Darlington.

But, even so, a fair amount of inconvenience was caused, and of course, cost and, though the main helpline traffic was dealt with by other SLC offices one specialist section exclusive to Darlington ceased to function for a time.

And why did this happen?

Because governments on both sides of the Atlantic have perpetuated the myth that biological weapons such as anthrax, botulism and ricin, this last from Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant, are easy to produce and easy to deliver in the form of a white powder.

Based on today’s episode every crazy knows that all you have to do is get some white powder, pop it in an envelope and send it off to your adversary and you will have the satisfaction of causing them inconvenience and financial loss at the very least.

I think there could well be a market for those American detection kits in the UK. I wonder if they have a British distributor.


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