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November 28, 2001
Vol. 28, No. 13



A Class Act: Informal Classes marks 30th anniversary

Director of Health & Safety says to exercise caution, but keep things in perspective

UT Press offers scholarly books about Middle East

UT and LULAC develop Austin Youth Leadership Academy

Advancements in disease research, mathematical theory take honors at Siemens competition

$7.2 million grant funds medical research

Marketing professor's research blends expertise in music industry, electronic commerce

New division to enhance teaching effectiveness, learning opportunities

Four teams to compete in MOOT CORP finals

Eckhardt continues to safeguard campus history six years after his death

Norma Cantú brings expertise into classroom

$2.15 NSF grant to improve production of oil, gas

Research team discovers mechanism regulating plant growth

Engineers harness "quantum dots" for neurological research

Orange Santa program makes season brighter

Readership Survey

Anti-terrorism expert calls for increased steps to combat terrorism

Arete: Jessica J. Summers

School of Social Work gets funding for substance abuse research

A salute to military veterans, POWs, MIAs




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Exercise caution, but keep things in perspective, university official says of campus safety concerns

By Richard Bonnin

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the phone rings at a steady pace in the office of Erle Janssen, director of the Department of Environmental Health and Safety at The University of Texas at Austin.

Many of the calls express concern about suspicious letters, white powder and anything and everything related to anthrax contamination. Janssen, who has been studying issues related to nuclear, biological and chemical threats since 1983, usually disarms the fears of panicked callers with the most effective weapon available — information.

"It is important that we keep things in perspective," Janssen said. "There has been no contaminated mail sent to Texas or any university in the United States that we know of. Whoever is behind this has targeted high-level media representatives and federal government officials — not universities. All told, there have only been three letters that have tested positive for anthrax. About 30 people have been exposed, and four have died."

While any loss of life is regrettable, Janssen said widespread panic over the anthrax incidents should be tempered by facts. About 20,000 people die each year in the United States from the flu, while 114,000 are hospitalized. About 76 million people suffer food poisoning each year, requiring 325,000 hospitalizations and causing 5,200 deaths. "Again, perspective is the key," he said.

Statewide, the Texas Department of Health already has tested 700 to 800 samples of letters, packages and other items for possible anthrax contamination at a cost of $104,000, Janssen said. On campus, about 30 incidents of suspicious letters or white powder have been reported. While all are taken seriously and investigated, including one letter mailed from Baghdad, Iraq, and another from Tasmania, Australia, none have tested positive for anthrax.

"We’ve investigated suspicious items that turned out to be sheet rock dust, talcum powder, powdered drink mix, breath mints that someone stepped on and cereal," Janssen said. "The main concern regarding these incidents is that people follow the guidelines for handling suspicious materials, which we have published on our Web site."

Janssen’s background is both research-and practice-oriented. He has held positions as a research chemist, industrial hygienist, hazardous waste manager, manager of biological and chemical safety, and safety director. Throughout his career, Janssen has been involved with establishing programs and developing cost-effective solutions to problems related to environmental health and safety.

He came to The University of Texas at Austin in 1998. As director, he is responsible for the operation and management of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, which serves the university's main campus and the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, the Marine Science Institute at Port Aransas and McDonald Observatory at Fort Davis. Before arriving here, he worked in the same capacity at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

With 25 years of experience in environmental management, beginning with his education as an environmental chemist, Janssen has put together a staff of 32 people who specialize not only in emergency response; hazardous materials; safety of students, staff and visitors; and protection of the environment, but also in disaster prevention.

With that in mind, Janssen has gone to various departments on campus and demonstrated proper techniques for safely handling mail. These include showing mail handlers the proper way to wear safety masks and how to safely wear and remove gloves.

At each stop, he makes it clear these are options available to employees who want to take extra safety precautions. "At this time, there is no reason to require any employees to do these things," he said.

Campus officials have responded well to the daily challenges these new safety concerns have presented, Janssen said.

"I'm very proud of the way the Environmental Health and Safety staff and the UT police department have pulled together to respond to these calls quickly and professionally. Campus-wide, people have remained diligent in following established safety procedures."

To stay abreast of the latest policies and procedures for management and risk assessment, control of infectious diseases and how to respond to threats and incidents involving weapons of mass destruction, Janssen attends numerous workshops, training sessions and conferences. He keeps a library of reference materials on the subjects — not only in his office, but on CDs at his home.

"I always want to be ready," he said, noting that his workday begins at 5:30 a.m. "Every day is a new challenge."

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