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Last Updated

10 Apr 2003

Source: Associated Press, April 9, 2003

Postal Service Tests Anthrax Detection

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The post office is launching a national test of a system to detect any new anthrax attack, 18 months after anthrax-by-mail terrorism killed five.

The search for whoever sent the deadly spores, meanwhile, is going slowly.

The new biological detection system has been tested for several months in Baltimore and will now go to 14 other cities for evaluation, Tom Day, postal vice president for engineering, said Wednesday.

"We have carefully reviewed its results and we are now confident that it is working successfully," Day told a news conference at Postal Service headquarters.

The system uses rapid DNA testing to look for anthrax and can be adapted to test for other biological hazards, he said. He added that the agency is also studying other equipment that would check for chemical, explosive and radioactive contamination.

Across town, cleanup was being completed at the anthrax-contaminated Brentwood postal facility where anthrax-laden mail addressed to two senators in October, 2001, sickened several postal workers and killed two.

Progress on the investigation of that attack has been slow, with FBI teams twice searching woods and ponds outside Frederick, Md., in recent months in an unsuccessful attempt to locate lab equipment that might have been used.

Frederick is home to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, where a bioweapons expert who has been questioned in the case once worked.

The FBI also has been working with scientists to "reverse engineer" the anthrax spores in an effort to figure out their origin and who could have produced them.

Meanwhile, the post office continues to irradiate mail addressed to government agencies to kill any biological hazards, a process that can slow delivery. Day said the testing machines might end the need for that process, but that decision remains far in the future.

The new testing system won't disrupt the movement of mail at all, Day said, producing results in as little as 30 minutes, so no contaminated mail would leave the sorting and distribution center.

The tests in the 14 new cities get under way June 1 and run for 30 days. The agency will then review the results to determine whether to install the equipment across the country.

The anthrax detectors are attached to facer-canceler machines, the first pieces of automated equipment that handle mail in sorting offices. The machines turn letters and large flat items so they all face in the same direction, and then cancel the postage.

A hood is placed over the slot where the mail moves and the air in that hood is continuously sampled, with the air samples tested for anthrax.

In months of testing in Baltimore there were no false positives and the machine detected anthrax whenever samples were sent through it, Day said.

However, he said the agency is interested in how the machines will perform in areas with differing climates and in spots where there is a natural level of anthrax in the environment because of the presence of livestock. Day cited Texas, Florida and parts of Pennsylvania as examples.

The machine does not test parcels, but Day said that if a terrorist wraps the material in a package then it's unlikely to leak out and people have been warned against opening suspicious packages.

Day declined to state the cost of the new machines, but he did say the postal board of governors approved the program. Board approval is required for any capital spending of more than $10 million.

The system was developed with the cooperation of military experts, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Johns Hopkins University.

The test sites are Dulles, Va.; Capitol Heights, Md.; Albany, N.Y.; Edison, N.J.; Manasota, St. Petersburg and Tampa, Fla.; Midland, Texas; Los Angeles; Tacoma, Wash.; Rockford, Ill.; Lancaster and Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Cleveland.

Five people died in the October 2001 anthrax attacks, including the two postal workers.

The anthrax scare has contributed to the financial woes of the Postal Service, which suffered a $676 million loss last year.