At scattered points throughout the federal bureaucracy, someone is tacking up notices warning government workers of death or worse if they taste or sniff a substance referred to as "Lance."

"If tasted, it will cause instant death. If smelled, it will cause permanent brain damage." says a memo on one federal building bulletin board. The substance is supposed to come wrapped in airtight plastic bags, sliver foil and wrapped in cellophane tape. "Presence in the immediate are with the substances exposed may cause brain damage," the notice warns.

How did all this get started? Who started it? And why? Read no further if you expect any final answers to those questions here, but here's one version of what appears to have happened.

Sometime late last year in Anchorage, Alaska, according to a U.S. Customs Service source, a boy was accidentally sprayed with a commercial chemical irritant known as "Lance" used for crowd control. He suffered a reaction, but survived. Later, a plastic bag with the substance was touched by someone who suffered burns as a result.

The Alaska State Police issued a bulletin on the potential hazards of Lance. The bulletin was picked up by the National Park Service and sent to its employees. The Killeen, Tex., Police Department learned of Lance from the Park Service. Then a girl in Temple, Tex., was hospitalized after sniffing Lance mixed with cocaine.

Word passed to the Army Criminal Investigations Division at Fort Hood, Tex., and then to the Army at Fort Huachucha, Ariz., which passed the word to the Customs Service at Nogales, Ariz.

Customs in Nogales - stay with it, we're almost done - notified Customs in Washington which sent a teletype message to all personnel warning about Lance. The information was shared "in the field" with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Canadian Mounted Police, who told the media.

Then on Jan. 31, Customs headquarters in Washington sent a second message saying that Lance, afterall, "is not normally harmful to the extent noted in prior messages . . . but be an irritant."

Even yesterday, Maryland State Police were still calling members of the state General Assembly in Annapolis, warning them of the substance.

The warnings went to Assembly members' secretaries."My girls are all scared to death," said Sen. Joseph Bonvegna (D-Baltimore) yesterday.