USPS looks to sanitize against anthrax

Herald news services

WASHINGTON — Postal officials are considering sanitizing technology to block movement of anthrax in the mail in the wake of the deaths Monday — likely from anthrax — of two postal workers at a site that handles mail for the Capitol.

In all, officials have tallied a suspected three deaths and nine other confirmed infections from anthrax nationwide.

The two postal workers operated from the city’s central Brentwood station, which delivers mail to the nation’s capital, as did two others that were hospitalized, officials said Monday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all workers in 36 local post offices that receive mail from the Brentwood station take antibiotics as a precaution. Officials said about 2,000 employees would be covered.

At the same time, officials defended their decision not to order tests for postal workers last week, when an anthrax-tainted letter was opened in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

"I think they moved quickly, as quickly as they could," said Tom Ridge, the nation’s director of homeland security.

Postmaster General John Potter told a news conference Monday that postal engineers are visiting manufacturers to determine what sanitization equipment is available and how quickly it can be obtained for postal use.

He said they were looking at equipment that sanitizes fruit and meat to determine what will work best on mail.

Jeffrey Barach, vice president for special projects at the National Food Processors Association, said the types of radiation used on food would be well-suited to sterilizing mail, including killing such spores as anthrax.

Radiation beams can come from several sources and are effective in killing bacteria, he said. They do not leave any residue and do not make the food or other items radioactive, he said.

One of the major companies in the food sanitizing business is the SureBeam Corp. in San Diego.

Spokesman Will Williams said the process uses a focused beam of electrons to kill bacteria and other pathogens. The beam can quickly pass through envelopes and other packaging and can be used on a moving assembly line.

He said the equipment can be installed in existing facilities and that it could sterilize mail at a cost of about a penny per letter.

Potter said the Postal Service had stopped cleaning its machinery with blowers, a procedure that could have caused lethal anthrax spores to spread through the air.

Mitchell Cohen of the CDC confessed that investigators did not understand how victims had inhaled anthrax because the letter to Daschle was taped shut. "This phenomena … is an evolution," he said, " … How it’s actually occurring isn’t clear, and that’s part" of the investigation."

Also, the agency will ask Congress for financial help to cope with declining mail volumes and the costs of dealing with anthrax, Potter said. The post office is supposed to pay its own expenses from fees charged for moving the mail.

In an effort to reassure the public, anthrax specialists said Monday that it’s highly unlikely that any anthrax present in a Washington, D.C., post office could have contaminated other letters awaiting delivery to people’s homes.

"Your mail could not hold onto enough spores in the process of making it from the postal processing area to your home," explained bioterrorism expert Bruce Clements of St. Louis University. "I don’t think people need to be concerned about receiving their mail at home."

The CDC echoed that a risk to people at home is unlikely, noting it takes a high dose of anthrax bacteria to become ill.

In other developments:

  • Millions of postcards are being mailed this week, advising people what should make them suspicious about a letter or parcel, and what they should do about it. Officials said the cards should be arriving at American homes over the next eight days.

  • Congressional leaders announced plans for the House and Senate to convene today. At the same time, the House and Senate’s office buildings will remain closed, including the six where lawmakers and staff have their offices.

  • President Bush signed an order Monday that would help expedite the manufacture and storage of vaccines by adding the Department of Health and Human Services to a list of agencies given contracting authority for national defense purposes.

  • In Washington, D.C., the Environmental Protection Agency said it would use $500,000 from the federal Superfund program to help decontaminate the American Media Inc. headquarters building in Boca Raton, Fla., where an employee died of the inhalation form of the disease more than two weeks ago, and a co-worker is hospitalized undergoing treatment.

  • Four in 10 Americans polled said they have started exercising caution in opening their mail, according to survey conducted by The Washington Post and ABC. The question was asked before the news Monday of two possibly anthrax-related deaths of postal workers.

  • Fear of suspicious powder sent firefighters racing to two embassies in Malaysia, halted mail service in Finland and forced evacuation of a high school and a government building in Japan on Monday. Tests discovered traces of anthrax in white powder leaking from a letter at a Bahamas post. The incident was the third case of anthrax in letters outside the United States. The others were in Kenya and Argentina.

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