The Postal Service will install special equipment at 250 to 300 mail processing centers throughout the country during the next 15 to 18 months to irradiate mail and kill anthrax spores and other dangerous bacteria, a top official said Thursday.
The first machines will be installed within 60 days in New York, New Jersey and Washington, where letters contaminated with anthrax have been sent or received, Deputy Postmaster General John Nolan said in an interview.
More than 90% of all mail, such as catalogs and advertising, is considered relatively safe from tampering because it is produced by printing plants under comparatively tight security.
This mail is presorted by the mailers, reducing the amount of processing required by the Postal Service. Postal officials believe it does not need to be irradiated.
The equipment produces radiation that kills any bacteria inside an envelope or on its surface, according to Nolan.
The machines will be used primarily on the collection end of the postal process. Letter carriers will pick up mail from homes and street boxes and bundle it for distribution to the appropriate mail processing centers. There, the envelopes will be irradiated before being placed into the machines that sort them by destination.
"We anticipate changing our production plans for the collection of mail to do more centralization than we are currently doing," Nolan said. That means the potentially hazardous mail will be bundled for processing in a smaller number of facilities, to hold to a minimum the number of machines the Postal Service has to buy. At the destination end of the postal process, Nolan said, radiation treatment will be available as an extra service for customers deemed to be the most likely targets of terrorists, such as public officials and members of the news media.
Nolan said the Postal Service has no firm cost figures. He said postal officials were talking with the Bush administration about buying and operating the machines with public funds.
The Postal Service is also taking a series of steps to protect its workers throughout the country. It has ordered 86 million pairs of gloves, enough to provide three pairs daily for each worker handling the mail.
Four million facemasks have been purchased and 2 million have been disbursed to 140 locations. The masks can "filter out 95% of all microbes in the air, including anthrax spores," the Postal Service said.
The use of gloves and masks is encouraged but not required.
Any worker who asks for antibiotic pills to protect against anthrax will receive them, the American Postal Workers Union said. And all postal personnel will be given free flu shots. Early anthrax and flu symptoms are easily confused.
For postal customers, "basically we don't expect any problems," Nolan said. People who want to "feel really safe" after bringing in the mail should "wash [their] hands for 20 seconds with regular soap," Nolan said.
Mail service in Washington, where two postal workers died of anthrax, is likely to return to normal today, the deputy postmaster general said. Some mail was delayed a day while the Postal Service rerouted it from the Brentwood processing facility, which has been shut down indefinitely for decontamination. The two employees who died worked there, and two others have become ill and been hospitalized.