March 24, 1999
Word comes to us via the Internet rumor mill that another unsuspecting victim has fallen prey to the deadly sting of an HIV-contaminated needle secreted in the upholstery of a movie theater seat.
The incident, alleged to have occurred in Dallas, is only one of several recently reported, according to an email alert circulating since mid-February 1999. The text itself is a revised version of similar warnings that first appeared almost a year ago.
It reads as follows:
Subject: Safety BulletinNot so, says the Dallas Police Department.
Please Read!!! very important
For your information, a couple of weeks ago, in a Dallas movie theater, a person sat on something sharp in one of the seats. When she stood up to see what it was, a needle was found poking through the seat with an attached note saying, "you have been infected with HIV". The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reports similar events have taken place in several other cities recently. All of the needles tested HAVE been positive for HIV. The CDC also reports that needles have been found in the coin return areas of pay phones and soda machines.
Everyone is asked to use extreme caution when confronted with these types of situations. All public chairs should be thoroughly but safely inspected prior to any use. A thorough visual inspection is considered the bare minimum. Furthermore, they ask that everyone notify their family members and friends of the potential dangers, as well. Thank you.
The previous information was sent from the Dallas Police Department to all of the local governments in the Washington area and was interdepartmentally dispersed. We were all asked to pass this to as many people as possible.
"It's all false," a spokesman told the Dallas Morning News on Feb. 26. "This has not happened."
Be that as it may, the police switchboard reported receiving an average of 10 calls a day about the rumor during February, and officials have asked the public to stop forwarding the misinformation.
Responding to allegations that it had supposedly investigated this and similar incidents around the country, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta issued its own denial earlier this month. "Some reports have falsely indicated that CDC 'confirmed' the presence of HIV in the needles," it said. "CDC has not tested such needles nor has CDC confirmed the presence or absence of HIV in any sample related to these rumors."
The agency notes that the risk of disease transmission from discarded needles is extremely low anyway. This is especially true in the case of the AIDS virus, which can only survive outside the human body for a few minutes.
Meanwhile in Colorado and Virginia...
Another variant of the same rumor targeted Denver, prompting police there to issue similar denials. The form of the message was essentially the same:
Its a sick world out there. Be careful. This came from the Denver Police Department.Even as Denver police debunked these claims, authorities in rural Pulaski, Virginia were busy trying to figure out who actually did put hypodermic needles in the coin return slots of public telephones near the Walmart there. The Roanoke Times reported that two people were injured by the needles on Feb. 9 — the first known cases of this really occurring. Over the next few days, more hypodermic needles were found in mailbox drop slots and bank deposit boxes in nearby communities.
BE CAREFUL WHEN YOU GO TO MOVIES THEATERS. PLEASE CHECK YOUR SEATS BEFORE YOU SIT DOWN.
An incident occurred when a women went to sit in a chair and something was poking her. She then got up and found that it was a needle with a little note at the end. It said, "Welcome to the real world, you're HIV positive." Doctors tested the needle and it was HIV positive. BE CAREFUL GOING TO THE MOVIES!!! When you go to the movies, please check your seat.
One of the safest ways is NOT by sticking your hand down in the seat. Move the seat part way up and down a few times and look really good. Most of us just plop down in the seats.
The following is important too. Pay telephone drug users are now taking their used needles and putting them into the coin return slots in public telephones. People are putting their fingers to recover coins or just to check if anyone left change. They are getting stuck by these needles and infected with hepatitis, HIV and other diseases. This message is posted to make everyone aware of this danger. Beware PLEASE FORWARD TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!!
Even as the headlines blared "Urban Myth Is Reality," the incidents in Virginia were being labeled "copycat crimes" by police. The use of hard drugs is not exactly rampant in these small communities, nor could it have been coincidental that the placement of the needles so closely matched the incidents previously described in Internet rumors. The cases in Pulaski were reported less than a week after Roanoke Times columnist Joe Kennedy challenged the veracity of the online warnings in a published article.
A more recent story in the Washington Times stated that none of the needles found in Virginia were were contaminated with HIV or any other disease. Pulaski police Sgt. David Moye called the copycat pranks "a ploy to make people afraid to live every day" -- a characterization that applies equally well to the Internet rumors that inspired them.