Post office gets devices for anthrax

By Chip Johnson
of the San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, October 8, 2004

Each new week in post-9/11 America brings another anti-terrorism plan, but perhaps none is more important than the high-tech gadgetry that one of the nation's largest employers is now using.

That employer is the U.S. Postal Service, an organization with more than 750,000 employees, the largest vehicle fleet in the world and the responsibility for delivering nearly half the parcels, packages and letters on Earth.

And now it's armed with anthrax-sniffing devices.

In the two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the postal service became the focus of a nationwide anthrax scare after the discovery of the deadly toxin inside a mail distribution center in Hamilton, N.J., was linked to the deaths of five people around the nation.

The victims included three people in Connecticut, New York and Florida and two postal workers in Washington, D.C. Seventeen other people became ill from some level of exposure to the toxin.

As shocking as those deaths were to postal employees and the general public, researchers' disclosure that trace amounts of anthrax may have moved from one letter to another during the distribution process has ushered in a new era of technology in one of nation's oldest federal agencies.

Oakland's mail distribution facility on Seventh Street is one of the U.S. Postal Service's first regional distribution centers on the West Coast equipped with a state-of-the-art, biodetection system designed to analyze the 8 million letters that pass through its letter processing machines each day.

Detection of anthrax will trigger an emergency warning to employees and prompt an immediate building evacuation, said Gus Ruiz, a postal service spokesman.

Here's how it works: The device, which is attached to a letter-processing machine on the front end of the line, works as cancellation marks are placed over the stamps, Ruiz said.

A metal hood equipped with a vacuum pulls in air from around each letter that passes through the machine. The air is mixed with a small amount of water and carried by hose into testing cartridges housed in a cabinet beneath the line.

The system can detect anthrax DNA and launch a warning within 90 minutes, he added.

Male and female workers would be immediately evacuated and required to remove all clothing as they pass through separate decontamination chambers where emergency workers would wash them down and issue them temporary clothing and prescribe medication for possible exposure.

The postal building would then be sealed until it could be decontaminated and reopened. The test results would be sent to a lab in nearby Richmond, where they would be tested for live anthrax spores within 24 hours.

Ruiz said the postal agency is certain that in the event of an anthrax emergency, there would be no danger to residents living in the vicinity of the facility.

While the biodetection device represents the best technology available to guard against future incidents, officers of the Oakland Chapter of the American Postal Workers Union recognize that the system is far from perfect.

Paul Lew, vice president of the local chapter, which represents about 2, 200 postal workers, said that while the biodetection system offers another layer of safety, workers are concerned about the possible side effects of medications they would take after a possible exposure.

And there is that nagging 90-minute delay for the test results to be processed, Lew said.

"I believe the level of technology is what we have to work with, and the fact the spores have been airborne for 90 minutes is to assume that everyone has been exposed,'' he added.

Union officials have pointed out that if the biodetection device takes a sample at the end of a work shift, the 90- minute delay could result in as many as 500 workers walking out the door not knowing they'd been exposed to the toxin, Lew said.

The facility operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long.

"We recognize that this is the current level of technology, but I believe the level of anxiousness was heightened by the deaths on the East Coast," Lew said. "No one here has expressed anxiety about the likelihood of another attack, but there are questions about how well the new system will work and how effective it will be.''

At the same time, the U.S. Postal Service workforce -- from letter carriers to handlers, sorters and plant technicians -- is acutely aware of the hazards of working in the type of distribution facilities that have been targets.

"Everyone is more observant of their environment and surroundings because we do realize that the U.S. mail has been used as a conduit for a terrorist attack,'' he said.