WASHINGTON -- The post office is turning to the latest in anti-bacteria technology to clean the mail, while urging Americans to take the old-fashioned precaution of washing their hands because the safety of mail can't be guaranteed.
The Postal Service is struggling to cope with instances of anthrax being sent with pieces of mail. Two postal workers and a Florida man have died and others were sickened by the contamination.
Postal Service headquarters in downtown Washington was added to the sites being tested for contamination after a worker there developed suspicious symptoms. Initial tests on the worker and building were negative, the agency said.
Nationwide, postal inspectors have responded to a total of 3,961 incidents of suspicious mail. On Tuesday there were 80 such reports at postal facilities. Eight resulted in partial or whole closure of facilities.
On Wednesday, tractor-trailer loads of mail were being shipped from Washington to a site where electron-beam technology could be used to sanitize them, said Deborah Willhite, a senior postal vice president
The agency was in the process of obtaining similar machines to use in its own facilities as well as state-of-the-art masks and gloves to protect postal workers.
President Bush released $175 million to help the agency, and the postal governing board authorized an additional $200 million in emergency spending to help pay for equipment and other measures.
At the same time, postal officials urged Americans to wash up after handling mail -- admitting they cannot guarantee its safety.
"We have debated internally since this began whether we could just stand and bald-face say, 'Don't worry, your mail is safe,"' Willhite said Wednesday.
"We're not going to lie to the American people, who have sustained us for 227 years. At this point in time, the mail has a potential risk," she said, adding: "You know, on the risk management scale of life, the mail is pretty low."
Nonetheless, she said people should wash their hands in soap and water after they handle their mail, "just to make sure that if anything is on the envelope, that they're clean. We have no reason to believe that there would be anything on them, but what's the problem with clean hands?"
The contamination has led to anthrax testing and provision of antibiotics for thousands of postal workers in Washington, New York and New Jersey as well as some members of the media and others who had spent time in Washington's now-closed Brentwood mail facility.
On Wednesday, Willhite expanded that to add employees of organizations that bring large shipments of bulk mail to the Brentwood center. She said that includes about 200 workers from organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States and the International Monetary Fund.
Postmaster General John Potter said the agency is "taking concrete steps immediately to protect employees and the public through education, investigation, intervention and prevention."
But Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, questioned whether the Postal Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did enough to protect postal workers -- and the mail still being delivered in the Washington area. The agencies have been criticized for waiting several days before testing people for anthrax at the contaminated Washington distribution center.
"It is critical that your agencies retrace your steps to ensure that no one else dies from this scourge," Grassley wrote to Potter and CDC director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan. "It is up to public health authorities and the U.S. Postal Service to demonstrate that mail delivered in Washington, D.C., is not dangerous."
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