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Mystery substance identified after hazmat response at Mahnomen County gas station

Law enforcement officials gather Monday, April 30, at the Community Co-op Cenex store in Mahnomen, Minn., after money used to pay for an item gave an employee a burning sensation on her hand. Nick Broadway / Forum News Service

MAHNOMEN, Minn. – The mystery substance found on cash that burned a clerk at a gas station Monday, April 30, was a “carbohydrate” that may have triggered an allergic reaction, according to the sheriff’s office.

A state lab in St. Paul determined that the powder on the bill was “non-toxic and non-acidic,” Sheriff Douglas Krier said Tuesday.

The clerk’s call to police on Monday prompted a response from a handful of local agencies, including the Moorhead hazmat team, and the state. The clerk, the customer who brought the cash, and five others at the gas station at the time were taken to Mahnomen Health Center.

“Things that were going through my mind: Is this fentanyl? Is this meth? Is this anthrax? It could've been fertilizer,” Krier said. “We didn’t know what we had.”

Even now the substance is a bit of a mystery, though he suspects it was some sort of sports supplement.

In less than five hours, the hazmat team was able to determine the substance was likely not harmful, allowing everyone to go back to work or home, according to Edward Snetsinger, emergency manager for the White Earth Indian reservation and Mahnomen County.

According to the sheriff’s office, a customer entered the Community Co-op Cenex store, at U.S. 59 and Minnesota 200 northeast of the city of Mahnomen, about 12:20 p.m. and paid for an item with cash.

After the clerk who handled the cash complained of a burning sensation on her hand, she called police.

Paramedic Jackie Bentler, who was in the store at the time, said the clerk complained her hand was burning after touching the substance on the dollar bill. “After she washed them, they were still burning.”

“First thing on my mind was drugs,” Bentler said. “I mean, how many white powdery substances are out there? There’s tons of them, but that’s the first thing you go to these days.”

The store was sealed off, and the seven involved were taken to the hospital where staff had set up a decontamination unit outside the building, according to Snetsinger. Hospital workers treated the clerk while wearing protective gear and observed the other six. New patients were diverted to other area hospitals.

“We didn’t know what we had, so we didn’t want to contaminate the hospital,” Krier said at the time.

Snetsinger said the hazmat team examined the clerk for any reaction and, by process of elimination, determined the substance was likely not hazardous. By 5:30 p.m., Snetsinger said, the incident was considered to be over.

Krier said an investigator who interviewed the customer learned that he’d stopped at several places that day and made cash transactions so it’s hard to tell what the substance was exactly.

The sheriff’s office said no further investigation is needed.

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