Postal service continues fight against mailed bioterror threats

A decade after the 2001 anthrax mail attacks killed five people and injured 17 others, the issue of postal safety has faded in many people’s memory, including in many of those that work for the postal service.

As mail volume continues to drop, the postal service has been losing billions of dollars and has had to focus more on its very survival than on mail safety, according to the Washington Post.

“Most people, I think, have forgotten about anthrax in the mail,” Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said, the Washington Post reports. “And truthfully, that’s probably not a bad thing.”

The Postal Service is now relying on both human checks and screening by machines to track suspicious mail. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service says it has had to respond to reports of suspicious mail 52,000 times since the 2001 attacks. Most calls are false alarms, but there are at least 10 calls every day.

Shift supervisors and postal inspectors regularly receive updates on evolving threats and inspectors practice regularly with local law enforcement agencies in anticipation that another attack might occur.

Overall, postal workers have begun to worry less and less about a real attack, though hoaxes occur regularly. Many have stopped wearing gloves and masks as a precaution. Nonetheless, anthrax changed the way the postal service functions.

“We didn’t know how to handle it,” Guy J. Cottrell, the chief of the Postal Inspection Service, said, Reuters reports. “But we’ve made a lot of changes to how we respond to incidents and how we educate our employees if they see a potential threat.”

The USPS spends approximately $101 million every year to screen every piece of first class mail that is sent or received by households in the U.S. and every piece of mail that is sent to federal addresses in Washington, D.C.

Testing machines that sample the air to track biological agents and test 36,000 pieces of mail every hour have not detected any harmful biological chemicals since they were installed in 2002.

After being sorted at a Washington facility, federal mail is screened and irradiated at a facility in New Jersey operated by Sterigenics, a medical sterilization company. The USPS said the program costs about $12 million, but refused to provide further details.