Contaminated mail machines at postal facilities in Washington, DC, and Hamilton Township, NJ, have led investigators to fear that anthrax may have spread to bulk business mailings processed there.
Mail has been routed to other distribution centers as investigators continue to check the two areas. Three anthrax-laced letters — to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and the New York Post — went though the Hamilton Township center en route to Washington and New York on Sept. 18 and Oct. 18. The letter to Daschle went through Washington’s Brentwood facility.
Deborah Willhite, senior vice president at the U.S. Postal Service, yesterday urged organizations that send bulk mail through Brentwood to have employees tested as well.
So far, tests have focused on postal workers, but they should be extended to up to 200 more, she said, including employees of the International Monetary Fund and Humane Society of the United States, both of which collect large volumes of mail from the Brentwood center.
Investigators said a bar-coding machine shows signs of anthrax, which means other mail could have been contaminated as well.
In New Jersey, bulk-mail customers who entered the Hamilton Township facility or the West Trenton Post Office between Sept. 18 and Oct. 19 are being urged along with any postal workers to begin a 10-day course of antibiotic treatment.
These developments raise fears that initially harmless letters could be cross-contaminated and then delivered to people's homes. Even postmaster general John E. Potter warned the nation that there are no guarantees the mail system is safe.
“We're asking people to handle mail very carefully,'' he said on ABC's “Good Morning America” yesterday. “People have to be aware of everything in their day-to-day life, and, certainly, mail in our system is threatened right now.”
However, Potter said the USPS has no plans to curtail mail deliveries.
“We’re not going to be defeated,” he said. “We have delivered some 20 billion [pieces of mail] since Sept. 11.”
Mailing experts said they don’t think there is a major threat.
“I think we are all chasing ghosts here,” said Neal Denton, executive director of Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, Washington, DC. “Direct mailers should keep on mailing. The mail must continue to go on. The mail is safe. The mail is secure, and there are some of the best minds in the country making sure [the USPS] bypasses any of these areas where they had these temporary problems.”
Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association, agreed.
“The threat is very minimal to direct mailers,” he said, “and now the postal service and the public health people are taking aggressive steps to fully contain this.”