Another day of new anthrax cases and no apparent breaks in the case left officials frustrated and defensive. The government seemed to know little more than the general public about where the mail-borne anthrax bacteria might be originating, or who might be sending it.
In fact, after days of reassuring messages that anthrax was not an immediate threat, Tom Ridge, the new director of homeland security, said yesterday, "It is clear that the terrorists responsible for these attacks intended to use anthrax as a weapon."
By Friday afternoon, no branch of government was left untouched by the scare. The U.S. Supreme Court building closed for environmental testing after anthrax was found in the high court's remote mail facility. A State Department mail handler who does not work near any of the previously investigated sites has been hospitalized with pulmonary anthrax. The CIA announced that it had found a trace amount of anthrax in a mail-handling facility at its headquarters. Across the city, further environmental tests on congressional office buildings revealed more traces of anthrax. And in New York, scientists found anthrax on four letter-sorting machines at Manhattan's central mail-processing station.
Post office blues
Postal workers are, of course, at the center of the anthrax storm. Postal union members in two cities plan to file lawsuits against management; in New York, the workers are suing to close the Manhattan processing facility, where traces of anthrax were found on a sorting machine. In Florida, union members claim management did not respond adequately to workers' safety concerns after the first case of anthrax was diagnosed in Boca Raton.
Meanwhile, Washington, D.C. postal employees are fuming over what they see as the government's inexcusable lapse in safety procedures. The anthrax-contaminated Brentwood postal facility, workplace of the two postal workers who died from pulmonary anthrax, remained closed at the end of the week, designated a crime scene.
Now that the link between mail and anthrax has been firmly established, health officials say, the key is keeping the nation's postal workers safe even while they continue to go about their suddenly hazardous jobs. Postal workers are in the trenches here at home. "The mail and our employees have become the target of terrorists," Postmaster General John Potter said. Representatives of the postal workers' union are considering various protective measures, including special gloves and masks, for those who handle mail. Potter insisted Wednesday that any danger to the general public was "slim," and argued against a temporary suspension of postal service, saying, "How would we get it started again? There's never any guarantee that there isn't anthrax anywhere."
MAKING THE MAIL SAFE AGAIN
There are two ways to kill anthrax bacteria lurking in letters and
packages: Steam and irradiation. The Washington, D.C. area postal service is currently using irradiation to rid its mail of lingering bacteria, and officials are evaluating both methods for widespread use.
o Steam: Mail would be placed under a 250-degree steam for 30 to 90 minutes. For efficiency’s sake, this process would require room-size steamers, which generally cost about $100,000.
o Irradiation: Currently FDA-approved for use on meat, this process would kill off any dangerous bacteria by blasting mail with radioactive rays, much like an X-ray.
Unsurprisingly, there is already a booming Internet market for personal germ warfare accoutrements: You can buy your very own Sterilizer online for the low, low price of just $2800 (plus shipping).
As the new cases came to light, the government appeared less and less capable of responding to questions and concerns. "We just don't know" is a disturbingly common refrain at press conferences as officials struggle to balance announcements of sweeping safety procedures Washington D.C. mail is being irradiated and more than 10,000 people are now taking Cipro with pleas for calm.
Of course, the national psyche is not helped by the fact that Bush administration officials have been sending out a lot of mixed signals over the past two weeks. First we were told the anthrax spores found in Senate Majority Leader Daschle's office were "weapons-grade." Days later, authorities backtracked, saying the bacteria appeared to be in a much cruder form than originally thought. Soon after that, two U.S. Postal Service workers were dead and several more were infected with the inhaled form of the disease catastrophes linked, apparently, to the Daschle letter. Now, suddenly, we're back to "weapons-grade" anthrax.
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