The FBI is investigating an unidentified substance mailed to a Lawrence business.
Sallie Mae, 2000 Bluffs Drive, was shut down for a few hours Monday morning after workers notified emergency crews of a paste-like substance on an envelope. The substance may have caused rash and eye irritation for at least two employees of the student loan servicing center. Others also complained of unusual symptoms.
The suspect envelope, which contained student loan forms, was received Saturday and opened by a Sallie Mae employee who said its contents irritated her eyes.
The envelope was handled again Monday by the employee's supervisors, who agreed that the material seemed suspicious and called emergency crews, said Jim McSwain, chief of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical.
Medical crews arrived and examined the four people who had contact with the envelope.
"One of the people that handled it today had a small rash on their arm," McSwain said. The employee believed the rash was caused by the contents of the envelope.
Crews also talked to the woman who had opened the envelope Saturday. She reported eye irritation.
Emergency crews responding to Monday's report approached the suspect mail as if it contained the deadly anthrax virus. But investigation at the business and an employee's home revealed the substance probably wasn't deadly, though it still is being tested by the FBI.
McSwain said fire and medical crews are trained to approach potential hazardous materials situations expecting the worst. That's why the room containing the mail was evacuated and firefighters donned hazardous materials suits to enter the building.
"It was an unidentified product and anthrax is one of the things you hear about, you read about, we're trained about," McSwain said. "The potential of an anthrax incident could be very severe."
Anthrax is an animal virus that attacks the human respiratory system, killing victims within days.
Sallie Mae spokeswoman Joanna Acocella said her company also has procedures for handling strange materials found in the mail.
"When there is something unexpected or possibly suspicious we simply have a process to go ahead and follow some steps," said Acocella, who works at Sallie Mae headquarters in Reston, Va.
During their investigation, fire and medical crews cleared the subject room but did not evacuate the building of its 300 employees.
The FBI was called because the material was sent through the mail.
McSwain said the envelope bore a return address.
After initial investigation, the FBI lowered its testing priority for the envelope from 24 hours to within 10 days, another sign that the threat was not serious. The materials were taken to a Kansas City, Mo., lab for identification.