Latest anthrax scare brings call for better bioterror technology

The Postal Service reacted appropriately in response to an anthrax scare last week at a mail facility in Washington, but the incident illustrates the need for better bioterrorism technology, federal officials said Monday.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said the Postal Service had no choice but to close 11 mail facilities last Thursday when preliminary tests on an air sample from the Naval Consolidated Mail Facility in Southeast D.C. indicated possible anthrax contamination. Most mail handled at the Navy facility also passes through the V Street N.E. Post Office, which serves federal agencies.

In the fall of 2001, five people in Connecticut, Florida, New York and Washington were killed and 13 others sickened when anthrax-laced letters were sent to two U.S. senators and a number of media outlets.

"I think the postal service is erring toward overreaction rather than caution, and I can't blame them," Norton said. "I think that until we get better bioterrorism protection, they are put in the position of having to shut down facilities when the odds are very much against the discovery of a harmful substance."

Tests at the Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring, Md., over the weekend were negative for anthrax, said Navy spokesman Lt. Mike Kafka. By Monday, the closed mail facilities were reopened and more than 1,000 postal employees returned to work.

After the 2001 anthrax attacks, postal officials came under fire from employees and others for failing to shut down the Washington processing plant that handled the anthrax-tainted letters. The letters were processed at the Brentwood postal facility, renamed the Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. Processing and Distribution Center, in honor of two postal employees who died from anthrax exposure. In October, Brentwood Exposed, a group of Washington-area postal workers, filed a class action lawsuit over the incident. The deaths led postal officials to adopt new mail-handling procedures at government postal facilities in Washington, including irradiating mail to render anthrax spores harmless.

"I think that this past week was a testament that those systems do work and they are in place to protect not only the postal workers, but those who receive mail from those facilities," said Kafka.

Sally Davidow, spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union, said the Postal Service handled the situation appropriately. She said communication with postal workers has gone through "ups and downs since 2001" but was good last week.

"I think in this incident that things were handled well," she said. "We certainly supported the Postal Service's decision to close the 11 offices as a precautionary move while the tests were being done."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which has oversight over the Postal Service and the Homeland Security Department, agreed with Norton that better technology is needed.

"Unfortunately, this incident also shows how vulnerable we still are to bioterrorist attacks," Collins said Friday. "Now, more than ever, it is essential that we work to fill the gaps in our nation's defense and surveillance systems against bioterrorism."

Postal Service spokesman Bob Anderson said the agency plans in March to install new biohazard detection systems at 282 major processing and distribution centers across the country. The new systems will scan mail that is collected from drop boxes for possible contamination, Anderson said. All mail destined for federal agencies in Washington will continue to be irradiated.

However, if federal agencies and private companies want protection beyond what the Postal Service is doing, they need to invest in new technology themselves, Anderson said.

Overall, the anthrax scare last week did not cause significant disruptions to the federal government, a General Services Administration spokeswoman said. She said mail collection and delivery was stopped for Friday only, and returned to normal on Monday.

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