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Potter: Irradiation Equipment Won't Be in Place Till Nov. 1

Though postal officials see the need for immediate fixes to the nation's mail crisis, postmaster general John E. Potter said yesterday that irradiation equipment to neutralize anthrax bacteria won't be in place until Nov. 1.

“This new technology won't be cheap, but we are committed to spending what it takes to make the mail safe,” Potter said.

The equipment will be able to kill any biological agents in the mail, he said, and the technology is already used in the nation's food supply. Citing security issues, officials wouldn't discuss the equipment in more detail nor where it will be located.

According to wire reports, officials have talked to Titan Corp., San Diego, which said it could have the technology installed onto some USPS conveyor belts in less than two months. Titan CEO Gene Ray told USA Today that irradiating all mail would add about a penny to the cost of delivering each letter.

The irradiation process would expose mail to fast-moving electrons, similar to a microwave oven. To kill bacteria, meat is irradiated for a fraction of a second, but anthrax is harder to kill so mail would have to be irradiated for almost a minute.

Idaho Technology, Salt Lake City, also is working on a machine that automatically analyzes the air for and an alarm is sounded when anthrax or other germs are detected.

President Bush authorized $175 million to improve post office security immediately. In addition, the U.S. Postal Service's Board of Governors unanimously approved spending at least $200 million to buy or lease irradiation equipment. Though the money approved by the governors will help pay for such equipment, USPS spokesman Greg Frey said he “has no idea just what the $175 million will be used for.” News reports put the cost to implement irradiation equipment at $1 billion.

Earlier this month, the USPS estimated its costs at $63 million from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the anthrax scare is adding to that. Experts put that at anywhere from $200 million to $2 billion. The agency already was looking at a potential loss of $1.6 billion this year, and mail volume has fallen since the attacks.

Meanwhile, postal officials have adopted stricter safety measures as part of a four-part effort to make the mail safe.

“We are taking concrete steps immediately to protect employees and the public through education, investigation, intervention and prevention,” Potter said.

Officials are educating employees and the public about how they can spot suspicious pieces of mail.

“We also are investigating to find out who is sending these dangerous mail pieces,” Potter said, “and we are aggressively intervening when the public or our employees are put at risk by terrorists.”

The USPS is providing masks and gloves to any mail processor who requests them. The agency has established field command centers so employees can notify the centers if they seek admission to a hospital. It also has changed how sorting equipment is cleaned, using a vacuuming process instead of blowers. Postal facilities also will use stronger, anti-bacterial cleaning chemicals as part of routine maintenance.

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