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US Postal Service Improves Mail Safety - 2001-10-30

The U.S. Postal Service is taking measures to ensure the safety of its mail, which has been compromised by anthrax.

The Postal Service motto declares that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night will keep mail carriers from their appointed rounds. If the Postal Service has its way, anthrax won't interfere, either.

Postal authorities have been struggling to cope with the bacterial threat, which has closed mailrooms from New York to Florida.

What began with contaminated mail delivered to private news organizations has spread to government mailrooms in Washington. Three anthrax deaths and more than one dozen other confirmed cases involve people who have either received tainted mail or helped process it. The Postal Service says more than two dozen of its workers are hospitalized with suspicious symptoms.

Deputy Postmaster General John Nolan told CBS television interviewers that his agency is on full alert. Mr. Nolan said, "What we're doing is making sure that we're doing all the right things to make sure we can deliver mail safely. We are working very hard to ensure the safety of our employees and the American public, and yet keep mail moving, because mail is important to people."

One measure postal officials have taken is to buy $40 million worth of equipment to irradiate mail with electron beams and x-rays. The first postal area to receive the new equipment in November will be Washington, DC.

Until the systems are shipped, the company that is supplying the hardware, the Titan Corporation, is sanitizing Washington mail at its Ohio facility.

Titan president Gene Ray says the mail is quarantined and sent to Ohio on special hazardous material trucks. Mr. Ray said, "The mail in Washington is put into hazardous material bags that are sealed and then sanitized. Then that bag is put inside another hazardous material bag, which again is sealed and sanitized. Then it's put into a box that is sealed and that box is what's shipped to us. We take that box, do not open it at all, run it through our process, and send it back."

Postal Service official Deborah Willhite is quoted by the Associated Press as saying the agency is working with U.S. military authorities to obtain technology to detect bacteria in the mail.

The service has also taken steps to protect its employees by distributing millions of pairs of plastic gloves and facemasks. Thousands of postal workers are taking preemptive antibiotics.

Deputy Postmaster General Nolan says his agency is also using stronger antibacterial chemicals for routine building maintenance and has switched its mail cleaning process from forced air to a vacuum system. "We are being more vigilant in certain areas looking for any indications of problems," he said. "We've changed some of our operating procedures in the Post Office to keep dust from blowing. We're not putting any of our employees in harm's way."

The Postal Service has also warned citizens not to open suspicious mail, but to alert public health and police authorities.

It says a suspicious letter might be from an unfamiliar source; have no return address; be oddly shaped or unusually heavy for its size; have protruding wires, strange odors, or stains; or be labeled "Confidential" or "Personal."

The agency is no stranger to dangerous mail. From time to time letter bombs sent through the U.S. mail have exploded, causing injuries and death. But the current situation has caused more worry than any previous mail threat, because it involves a feared biological agent that can float through the air.

Public health officials are trying to quell the fears. One of the government's top infectious disease experts, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, said on NBC television that the contamination of the main Washington mail distribution facility or subsidiary units has not spread beyond them. Dr. Fauci said, "There have been no documented cases at all of an individual getting a letter personally from that facility and winding up getting disease."