- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Mail that comes in contact with anthrax-laden letters does not pose a significant threat, medical professionals said yesterday.
"Your mail could not hold onto enough spores in the process of making it from the processing area to your home," said Dr. Bruce Clements of St. Louis University's Center for Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections. "I don't think people need to be concerned about receiving their mail at home."
But to be safe, Postal Service officials said yesterday that equipment used to sanitize fruits, meats and other food will be brought in to eliminate anthrax from mail. The equipment likely would involve infrared or ultraviolet light.
Postal workers are not required to wear latex gloves or face masks. Postmaster General Jack Potter said only a few have been using them voluntarily since a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was found contaminated with anthrax last week.
Two postal workers from the Brentwood Avenue distribution facility in Northeast Washington, where the letter was processed, died yesterday. Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said their deaths were likely due to anthrax infection. Two others are seriously ill with the potentially deadly inhaled form. The Brentwood and Baltimore-Washington International Airport facilities have been closed indefinitely for testing.
Mr. Ridge said it was not clear whether one letter contaminated the Brentwood facility or if there were several pieces of mail containing the bacteria.
"Right now [the investigation] is consistent with the theory that this one letter could have contaminated the whole system," Mr. Ridge said. "Whether there's others, we don't know."
The chance of random people whose mail was handled by the workers to become infected with anthrax is small, said Dr. Michael Donnenberg, head of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
"This is a new twist and another escalation in severity," he said. "What I suspect is that these four postal workers were involved with a single common-source incident involving heavy exposure to spores. And until they find out about the incident, the rest is speculation."
Doctors say a person must inhale at least 8,000 spores deep into the lungs to contract inhalation anthrax, which is fatal 99 percent of the time without treatment. With treatment, the death rate drops to 80 percent.
How the postal workers could have breathed in enough anthrax to kill them remains a mystery.
One possibility is that the postal system cleans its equipment with air hoses. "We blow out dust from our machines," Mr. Potter said yesterday. "We are revising those procedures as we speak."
But once anthrax spores are in the air, studies have proved they settle to the ground fairly quickly, within hours.
Meanwhile, the Postal Service said the agency would begin using irradiation equipment to eliminate any threat.
"We have our procurement people, our engineers, out visiting vendors today to determine where that equipment is and how quickly we can get it into facilities," Mr. Potter said.
But he could not say with any degree of certainty if such technology would treat both the contents and surface of mail items.
"I'm told that these folks have technology that can be brought to bear to address the anthrax issue," he said.
Medical observers said it was still too early to tell what the risk to public health will be.
"We'll have to wait and see if any such cases develop before we really have any idea and are able at all to put an estimate of what the risk is," Dr. Donnenberg said.
"I don't think there's much value in testing individuals for their own diagnosis. The main value is to test groups of people to see where it might have gone. We shouldn't be making decisions based on whether somebody has a positive nasal culture for an anthrax spore that has only a little value. The greater value is for the public health.
"I don't know how reassuring that might be to the public," he said, adding that the public should sit tight until more is known.
People receiving suspicious mail at home should put it down, wash their hands with soap ankd hot water and call the police, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson advised.
The Postal Service yesterday began mailing a postcard with tips about suspicious mail.
Mail service may be interrupted slightly while the Brentwood and BWI airmail facility are closed, although the Postal Service said service will not be affected.
Businesses with significant mail volume said they anticipate nothing more than a minor disruption in service, as the mail is diverted to other local distribution facilities, and say they are far more worried about protecting mail from anthrax exposure and ensuring it is not viewed suspiciously.
Companies said they are ensuring that all mail clearly displays company logos and is addressed properly.
America Online, based in Sterling, Va., said yesterday that it is moving ahead with plans to distribute "millions and millions" of its latest CD-ROM, featuring the latest version of the company's Internet connectivity software.
"Our plan is to move forward," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said. "Our mantra is 'all systems go.'"
Direct mailing companies, which send out thousands of pieces of mail each day, say they expect only minor disruptions.
"[Disruptions] will be minor and it will be isolated," said Robert McLean, executive director of the Mailer's Council, an Arlington-based company representing organizations that use the Postal Service. "This is just a minor inconvenience more than anything else."
Mr. McLean, a former lobbyist for the Postal Service, says he has seen major distribution centers close during emergencies, such as earthquakes, and the slowdown was minimal.
Kristina Stefanova contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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