Employees handle mail cautiously

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Staff Writer

Two postal employees in the Washington area have died from symptoms consistent with the bioterrorism threat of anthrax.

Another couple of postal employees have been diagnosed with inhalation anthrax as the United States Postal Service grapples with protecting employees and the general public.

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Officials with the local post offices have been silenced when it comes to talking with the press on the issue of anthrax. But, the USPS is taking action in those areas where the acute infectious disease caused by a spore-forming bacterium has been reported.

Franklin Pickle, manager of the Troy Mailboxes, Etc., is well aware of the anthrax scare touching America.

"We’ve been advised to open mail in an isolated area," Pickle said, adding he and his employees deliver more mail than they actually open.

Pickle said individuals who have mailboxes at his business location are also being advised to take precautions when opening mail, but he is not seeing fear in his customers.

"I haven’t been stricken by fear from people, but there’s been a lot of talk about it," Pickle said of anthrax.

The Washington, D.C. Processing and Distribution center at Brentwood and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport air mail facilities were temporarily closed Sunday for inspection of anthrax contamination.

"The safety and health of our employees is our foremost concern," said Jack Potter of the USPS. "While these actions are precautionary, we absolutely do not want to risk placing any postal employees in danger. By assuring the safety of our employees, we can assure the safety of our customers."

All the Brentwood employees who handle expedited mail are being tested for anthrax bacteria.

The United States Postal Inspection Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation are also offering rewards of up to $1 million for information leading to the arrest of anthrax mailers.

In partnership with "America’s Most Wanted," confidential telephone calls can be directed to 1-800 CRIME TV or www.amw.com.

"Postal inspectors take these mailings very seriously," Chief Postal Inspector Kenneth Weaver said. "We are going to ensure the mail continues to be a welcome visitor in every home and business in the nation. We know there is someone somewhere who saw something or who knows something about these letters."

Weaver said the reward shows how serious authorities are about finding the responsible individuals.

"Together with the support of our partners in the Postal Inspection Service and the people of this great nation we can track down the culprits behind the anthrax letters and strengthen the safety and security of the mail and our nation.," said FBI Deputy Director Thomas J. Pickard.

The outbreak of anthrax surfaced first more than a couple of weeks ago in Boca Raton, Fla.

Anthrax most commonly is seen in wild and domestic animals, such as cattle, sheep, goats, camels, antelope and other herbivores. However, it can occur in humans when an individual is exposed to an infected animal or tissue of an infected animal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, anthrax is most common in agricultural areas, including South and Central America, Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

The infection can occur through the skin, inhalation and by eating undercooked meat from infected animals.

Only 18 cases of anthrax contracted through inhalation were reported in the United States during the 20th century. The most recent case was reported in California in 1976.

The less serious form of anthrax, contracted through the skin, is more common.

Anthrax can be treated with antibiotics, although the variety contracted through inhalation is particularly lethal. If left untreated, 90 percent of victims die within days.

If anthrax spores between 1 and 5 microns penetrate the tiny sacks in the lungs, the immune system responds, killing some of the spores, but carrying others to the lymph nodes in the chest. The spores germinate and within one to 60 days, anthrax bacteria will begin to multiply, infecting tissue in the chest. As the tissue is infected, bacteria produce toxins that enter the bloodstream and, in the lungs, can cause hemorrhaging, collection of fluid and tissue decay.

The USPS said mail should be considered suspicious if it:

· Is unexpected or from an unfamiliar source.

· Is addressed to someone no longer with the organization or any information is outdated.

· Has no return address or the address can not be identified.

· Is oddly shaped or has an unusual shape for its size.

· Is marked with such restrictive notations as "Personal" or "Confidential."

· Has protruding wires, a strange odor or stains.

· Has a postmark that does not match the return address.

Anyone who receives a suspicious package should not open it, isolate it, evacuate the immediate area, call the police department or sheriff’s office and file a report with the postal inspector. If contact has been made with the package of envelope, those who have handled it should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water. A list of all who handled the mail should be made for the authorities.

Inspectors will seize the questionable package, assess the situation and coordinate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, if necessary