Monday, September 15, 2008

Anthrax Threats Changed Mail Handling

Perhaps, the anthrax-by-mail mystery has been solved, but the way of many government agencies and post offices handle the mail has undergone major changes.

People may still remember things that happened in 2001, when what seemed like dust spilled from envelopes in Florida, New York and Washington. It seemed little more than annoyance, infections quickly developed, killing 5 people and sickening 17.

Recently, the attacks burst back again after a biodefense researcher apparently committed suicide as prosecutors prepared to seek an indictment and the death penalty against him for the deadly 2001 attacks. The scientist, Bruce E. Ivins, was a leading military anthrax researcher who worked for the past 35 years at the government's biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md.

Nowadays, more than 1,000 biological detectors are sniffing mail for dangerous contamination at postal centers and other government offices across the country. The bioterrorism attacks forced the closing of two major mail-processing plants and contaminated 21 other postal facilities. The Postal Service also had to deal with more than 17,000 hoaxes that disrupted operations nationwide. Moreover, neighborhood boxes to send mail have become scarcer. Some concerned homeowners switched to outdoor boxes to receive mail instead of using slots in their doors.

More than a million containers of mail to the White House, Congress, and other federal agencies have been irradiated to kill potential contamination at a cost of $74.7 million so far. Each container weighs 15 to 20 pounds. Many packages that used to be dropped in mailboxes now must be handed over the counter to a postal clerk.

The post office deployed a fleet of biodetection systems at mail processing locations at a cost of more than $800 million. The annual operating cost has been estimated at more than $100 million. The detectors check for anthrax and other biological hazards that officials declined to identify. Moreover, postal workers now are trained to look for suspicious packages and call in postal inspectors if they figure out something unusual.

Among the things that make a package suspicious are leaking powder and liquids. Signs that the agency does not like to discuss also other telltales for fear of tipping off terrorists. When powder is leaking from a parcel, most of the time it turns out to be food, such as baking powder or flour, or perhaps a pill that has had crushed. Such is the worry about anthrax that incidents have disrupted the nation's post offices tens of thousands of times since 2001.

When workers see something on a machine, the floor, a case, leaking out of an envelope or box, they have been instructed to consider it dangerous. The area is sealed off and local hazardous materials teams and the Postal Inspection Service are called in.

Postal Service officials have said they could not estimate the cost of checking out suspicious packages. How much time is lost depends on the facility. In a large one, only one area may have to be evacuated, while a smaller office may have to be shut down.

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