- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

The U.S. Postal Service yesterday expanded tests of a new anthrax-detection system to 15 mailing facilities around the nation, including two in the Washington area.

Facilities at Dulles and Capitol Heights are among the plants that began tests yesterday. Others are in St. Petersburg, Fla., Midland, Texas, and Albany, N.Y.

In the first day of a monthlong trial, the Biohazard Detection System (BDS) at these mail facilities collected air samples as letters passed through mail-handling equipment. The action followed nine months of successful testing of the system in a Baltimore mail plant, where testing continues.

“It’s one of the many steps we’re taking to safeguard our employees and mail users, and to minimize the chance of any similar attack in the future,” said Bob Anderson, a spokesman for the Postal Service.

In October 2001, two postal employees at the District’s Brentwood mail-sorting facility in Northeast died of inhalation anthrax and another two were hospitalized after a letter containing the deadly spores passed through the building. Three other cases of anthrax that resulted in deaths were in Boca Raton, Fla., New York City and Oxford, Conn.

If the new system senses anthrax DNA in the air, it immediately sets off local and national alarms. The BDS runs continually, performing 10,000 tests a night.

Expanded tests were to begin May 30, but postal officials postponed those because they needed more time to develop response guidelines with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local governments.

Mr. Anderson said the system, designed by Northrop Grumman Corp., could not prevent a bioterrorism attack, but the quick warnings it would issue would minimize the impact.

“If these tests are successful and we don’t need any modifications in the equipment … we’re looking for nationwide deployment to start in January 2004,” Mr. Anderson said.

The United States has about 285 postal distribution centers that would get the anthrax-fighting technology. Postal officials have placed the technology in different regions so they can test all types of climates and conditions.

To ensure the system isn’t so sensitive it would give off false alarms, tests are also being run in areas where livestock create some ambient anthrax. No false alarms occurred at the Baltimore plant.

Despite Postal Service optimism, some aren’t sure the technology is enough to keep postal workers safe. Workers are wary following the deaths of Thomas L. Morris Jr. and Joseph P. Curseen, for whom the Brentwood facility has been named.

Sally Davidow, spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union, said employees are pleased with progress being made, but there is some doubt about the system.

“I think more than 50 percent of mail is presorted or metered or goes through at a different point,” she said. “So that’s a concern for us.”

Mr. Anderson said the only pieces of mail that run through the system now are those that letter carriers collect from the blue boxes.

He said the rest that comes through distribution centers comes from known senders such as businesses.

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