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The U.S. Postal Service Response to the Threat of Bioterrorism Through the Mail

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The deliberate mailing of Bacillus anthracis spores through the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has caused five deaths, twenty-two cases of anthrax, and massive disruptions to Congress and the USPS.

Both the public and private sector are examining an array of methods to limit the risk of future attacks. The array of potential solutions include improving mail handling procedures, changing the USPS anonymous mailing policy, installing bio/chem agent detectors, and sterilizing the mail.

For the USPS these decisions are complicated by its precarious financial state. Some proposed solutions may require an increase in postage rates and/or decreased levels of service. Each of these may further depress postal revenues and threaten the continued existence of the USPS as an independent, self-supporting entity.

Policymakers will need to decide if the USPS must ensure the safety of mail recipients. At this point it is not clear if this is practical or even possible with existing technology. It may be that it is practical to protect only the mail addressed to the most likely targets of future attacks.

Some of the measures that the USPS has taken or is planning to take to protect postal workers and mail recipients are common sense alterations to the mail processing procedures. These include measures to reduce cross contamination such as using vacuuming instead of pressurized air to dislodge dust, controlling air flow throughout sorting facilities to isolate potential exposure areas, and adding filters to air handling systems. The USPS is studying the feasibility of including biological weapon detectors during the sorting process. Additionally, the USPS is making gloves, masks, and educational materials available to all postal workers.

More controversial and potentially more costly are plans to sterilize the mail. Currently, all mail destined for federal offices in the Washington DC metropolitan area is shipped to sterilizing facilities for irradiation treatment before delivery. The USPS is studying whether this solution can be scaled up to sterilize all mail from anonymous senders. To implement irradiation procedures nationwide could cost between three and five billion dollars with up to another billion dollars each year in operating costs. This procedure may damage the contents of some mail.

Recent reports of skin rashes, headaches, breathing problems, vomiting and bleeding by people who handle irradiated mail have raised concerns about the safety of this treatment. The USPS is working with Congress and federal agencies to find out if the irradiated mail is causing these problems. Clearly this issue will need to be resolved before irradiating a larger portion of the mail. Policymakers will need to balance concerns for safety, cost, and practicality while to deciding how to alter the practices of the USPS. This report will be updated as events warrant.


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