Post-Anthrax, Mail Sent Around Inconvenience

By Michael Laris and Meg Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 3, 2008

After the October 2001 anthrax attacks, Washington's mail became suspect.

Suddenly, mail sorters were wearing ill-fitting masks and powder-free vinyl gloves. Companies added expensive new ventilation systems and washed down mailroom counters with bleach. More than $74 million was spent to zap the District's federal mail with high-energy electron beams and X-rays to kill off dangers.

But in the years since two D.C. postal workers died after coming into contact with mail destined for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and then-Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), the workplace has slid back into a more mundane routine filled with old habits, new evasions and, for many, manageable inconveniences.

Workers in a Senate mailroom wear gloves, but not because of anthrax. They don't like the feeling of mail made flaky by being irradiated at 150 degrees.

And the massive effort to kill pathogens on federal mail sent to Washington has dropped by more than 50 percent since its peak, according to a government report released last week, just two days after scientist Bruce E. Ivins, a suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks, died of an overdose of Tylenol.

The average amount of mail irradiated each month has fallen from 23,700 containers per month in 2002 to 10,900 containers as of April, according to the Government Accountability Office. One reason: More people are using e-mail.

But some government agencies also have changed their addresses to dodge the slower system, according to the GAO. The Postal Service only treats mail destined for certain Zip codes. Officials also rely on FedEx, which has different precautions.

"The anthrax thing was really a shot out of the blue," said Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "But it doesn't dominate your thinking like it did several years ago. There's a difference between being aware of a threat and being fearful."

In 2003, an envelope of rice from war protesters made it to Durbin's mailroom after being baked and crushed in the security regimen, Shoemaker said. When powder poured out, staffers called the police.

"They said, 'There's rice in there.' " Shoemaker said. But "the Capitol police thought they said, 'ricin,' " he said, referring to a potent poison that also raised bioterrorism fears. "They shut down the whole floor," Shoemaker said. Months later, ricin was discovered on a letter-opening machine in the office of then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Among the precautions embraced since the 2001 attacks: the Smithsonian Division of Meteorites told collectors not to send space debris by mail for fear that samples "may be substantially compromised."

Another department in the Smithsonian used examples from its own mail bins, such as yellowed envelopes and melted photographic slides, in an examination that determined that certain substances will "continue to break down after the irradiation process is over."

An aide for a Republican congressman, who has worked his way up from the mailroom since the anthrax attacks, said of that period: "Some things would come in crispy, so to speak. CDs would be melted. It's gotten a lot better," said the aide, who said office policy didn't allow him to be quoted.

About 100 boxes of the District's federal mail are damaged annually because of the precautions, according to the GAO. A videotape of a hometown TV profile of Durbin several months ago was too warped to play, Shoemaker said.

Companies such as Pitney Bowes started offering the option of intercepting mail and transmitting scanned copies instead. Dozens of congressional offices switched to the service, but it didn't take off. Other offices encouraged constituents to e-mail or bypass Washington.

"For casework or Minnesota issues, please send them to my Minneapolis Office," instructs Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) on his Web site, noting it can take up to three weeks to reach his District office.

The GAO found that federal mail in the District is typically delayed two to three days, including one day when mail is "aired out" to dispel fumes after being blasted with electrons.

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