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In October 2001, only a month after the Al Qaeda attacks in the United States, envelopes full of anthrax began appearing in the mailboxes of a select few. Media offices, the Senate Majority Leader, and the White House were targeted. Several seemingly random people also contracted the disease from contaminated mail, apparently indirectly. The FBI launched an investigation. The United States Postal Service shut down post offices and routing centers and began testing them for contamination.

People-- not everyone, mind you, but especially people working in mail rooms-- began wearing latex gloves when opening their mail. The news networks ran specials on the history of biological warfare, anthrax as a disease and a weapon (and a band), and our shocking unpreparedness for the doomsday that was surely upon us (well, maybe next week). Formerly innocent irregularities in mail-- handwritten addresses, bad packaging, missing return address-- were now deemed potentially sinister. New cases of infection were reported weekly, including several deaths. The FBI indicated it was taking a hard look at scientists known to work with anthrax, raided an apartment or two, dropped a few suspect names, and failed to turn up anything substantial. I'll leave it to some other goodly noder to provide us with a detailed timeline.

The whole situation was very surreal. It felt like a continuation of the events of September-- as though we'd entered a new era of sociopathy, a sick and tiresome cartoon world, and we were going to have to endure this sort of mad, random violence for a while. There was a certain degree of fear, mitigated by my damaged-but-resilient youthful feeling of invincibility (and statistical insignificance). For the most part, though, I remember feeling exasperated by the anthrax mailings, like some annoying wannabe was jumping on the KICK ME bandwagon.

"Sure, kick us while we're down. Jackass."

Sometime in the first week of November, I opened my mailbox-- with no gloves-- and the surreality of the times went up a degree or two. There, with my new Netflix delivery, was a card from the United States Postal Service, addressed to POSTAL CUSTOMER and providing guidance for dealing with (potentially) anthrax-infected mail. I've kept that card as a memento of the bizarre and uncertain world in which I lived when I was 22. If I have children, I hope their world makes it unbelievable and fascinating to them.

I've done my best to reproduce the card below.

THE CARD

+---------------------------------------------------------------------------+
|                          |  |   | UNITED STATES                | POSTAGE ||
|  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~       |  |___| POSTAL SERVICE               |         ||
| {          USA|34 }      |        (( address ))                +---------+|
| {                 }      |                                                |
| {  ( flag )       }      |                                                |
| {                 }      |                                                |
| {                 }      |                                                |
| {                 }      |                                                |
| {                 }      |             POSTAL CUSTOMER                    |
| {                 }      |                                                |
| { UNITED WE STAND }      |                                                |
|  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~       |                                                |
|                          |                                                |
|                          |                                                |
| ... MESSAGE FROM ...     |                                                |
| .... POSTMASTER ....     |                                                |
| ..... GENERAL ......     |                                                |
|                          |                                                |
|                          |                                                |
|                          |                                                |
|     ( blue )             |  ( white )                                     |
+--------------------------+------------------------------------------------+

FRONT TEXT

A MESSAGE FROM
THE POSTMASTER GENERAL

The U.S. Postal Service places the highest priority
on the safety of our customers and employees and
on the security of the mail.

Please see the other side of this card for
information about safety and mail handling. We
want you to know we are doing everything possible
to make sure the mail is safe, and we need your
help. Your security and peace of mind are
paramount to us

John E. Potter

BACK TEXT

What should make me suspect a piece of mail?
  • It's unexpected or from someone you don't know.
  • It's addressed to someone no longer at your address.
  • It's handwritten and has no return address or bears one
    that you can't confirm is legitimate.
  • It's lopsided or lumpy in appearance.
  • It's sealed with excessive amounts of tape.
  • It's marked with restrictive endorsements such as
    "Personal" or "Confidential"
  • It has excessive postage
What should I do with a suspicious piece of mail?
  • Don't handle a letter or package that you suspect is
    contaminated.
  • Don't shake it, bump it, or sniff it.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
  • Notify local law enforcement authorities.

My Experiences as an Equipment Tech on the Front Lines of the Anthrax Scare

I work in a high volume mailroom operation, and when the anthrax scare hit, I found myself on the front lines as an OPEX equipment tech. Anthrax was spread as a fine powder inside the envelopes that were sent through the postal service. In fact, a postal equipment technician may have been unwittingly responsible for spreading some of the deadly spores by the simple act of cleaning the machine out using compressed air at the Brentwood post office in Washington DC. For the uninitiated, high speed paper handling equipment such as mail sorters and mail opening machines creates a fair amount of dust as the paper slides, grinds and moves through these machines. Eventually, this dust creates problems by blinding optical sensors and needs to be removed periodically. Usually this is done by use of a blowgun attachment on a compressed air line. This quickly and efficiently removes the dust from critical sensors, but spreads it around the room.

Until the anthrax scare hit, the paper dust was only a minor concern as a mild allergen, although I suspected that it might carry cold viruses from all of those people licking stamps and envelope flaps. When Anthrax was found in Brentwood, it sent a wave of fear through the whole business. My primary worksite processes several hundred thousand pieces of mail each day, mostly bill payments, and they had to be processed. Since I was the one who had to get inside to clean the machines, I donned rubber gloves and a dustmask at the first reports of Antrax in the mail, and I got I a little bit of ribbing from operators used to my free use of compressed air. Next day however, I was greeted by a room full of operators wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves, and the compressor was unplugged. I took little comfort in reports that the Anthrax was only found in the Brentwood facility, which is the mail hub for Washington, DC. First Class Mail is usually transported in shallow cardboard or plastic mail trays, which circulate through the USPS as freely as cold germs through a daycare center.

Not all of my customers were so lucky, since many of the banks in the area got their mail directly from Brentwood. I also had to visit these customers occasionally to work on equipment during the crisis, digging into the machine's dusty innards to clean filters, cutters, sensors, and solenoids. I nervously went about my rounds throughout the crisis while keeping abreast of the news, but one day my boss woke me up in the middle of the day (I worked nights at the time) and all but ordered me to immediately report to Allfirst Bank, where the Baltimore City Health Department had set up a dispensary. An hour later, I arrived downtown at the temporary dispensary at Allfirst. Everyone who worked in the building was strongly encouraged to report there for screening, counseling, and a prescription for Cipro. Unlike the MVA, the dispensary was run professionally and efficiently, and in less than a half hour I was on my way holding a free prescription of Dicyclomine (I'm allergic to Cipro) to be taken as a precaution in case the building tested positive.

Fortunately the building got a clean bill of health, and the crisis passed. I feel for those that were harmed by the Anthrax, and often think "By the grace of God go I".



After the immediate crisis passed, there were a number of proposals put forward as ways to sterilize the mail. One of these suggestions was to irradiate the mail with massive doses of radiation. This was actually done on mail that was known to have passed through some of the high risk facilities. Much of this mail was held up for sometimes several weeks while it waited irradiation. In November 2001, this mail started to arrive. Unlike regular mail, the irradiated mail had a yellowish tint to it, and the documents inside had a yellowish brown cast to it, almost as if it was heated almost to the point of charring. The paper itself was also more brittle than normal from the exposure to millions of rads of radiation.

This gives me an idea for a node on mail sterilization....

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