My Experiences as an Equipment Tech on the Front Lines of the Anthrax Scare

I work in a high volume mailroom operation, and when the anthrax scare hit, I found myself on the front lines as an OPEX equipment tech. Anthrax was spread as a fine powder inside the envelopes that were sent through the postal service. In fact, a postal equipment technician may have been unwittingly responsible for spreading some of the deadly spores by the simple act of cleaning the machine out using compressed air at the Brentwood post office in Washington DC. For the uninitiated, high speed paper handling equipment such as mail sorters and mail opening machines creates a fair amount of dust as the paper slides, grinds and moves through these machines. Eventually, this dust creates problems by blinding optical sensors and needs to be removed periodically. Usually this is done by use of a blowgun attachment on a compressed air line. This quickly and efficiently removes the dust from critical sensors, but spreads it around the room.

Until the anthrax scare hit, the paper dust was only a minor concern as a mild allergen, although I suspected that it might carry cold viruses from all of those people licking stamps and envelope flaps. When Anthrax was found in Brentwood, it sent a wave of fear through the whole business. My primary worksite processes several hundred thousand pieces of mail each day, mostly bill payments, and they had to be processed. Since I was the one who had to get inside to clean the machines, I donned rubber gloves and a dustmask at the first reports of Antrax in the mail, and I got I a little bit of ribbing from operators used to my free use of compressed air. Next day however, I was greeted by a room full of operators wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves, and the compressor was unplugged. I took little comfort in reports that the Anthrax was only found in the Brentwood facility, which is the mail hub for Washington, DC. First Class Mail is usually transported in shallow cardboard or plastic mail trays, which circulate through the USPS as freely as cold germs through a daycare center.

Not all of my customers were so lucky, since many of the banks in the area got their mail directly from Brentwood. I also had to visit these customers occasionally to work on equipment during the crisis, digging into the machine's dusty innards to clean filters, cutters, sensors, and solenoids. I nervously went about my rounds throughout the crisis while keeping abreast of the news, but one day my boss woke me up in the middle of the day (I worked nights at the time) and all but ordered me to immediately report to Allfirst Bank, where the Baltimore City Health Department had set up a dispensary. An hour later, I arrived downtown at the temporary dispensary at Allfirst. Everyone who worked in the building was strongly encouraged to report there for screening, counseling, and a prescription for Cipro. Unlike the MVA, the dispensary was run professionally and efficiently, and in less than a half hour I was on my way holding a free prescription of Dicyclomine (I'm allergic to Cipro) to be taken as a precaution in case the building tested positive.

Fortunately the building got a clean bill of health, and the crisis passed. I feel for those that were harmed by the Anthrax, and often think "By the grace of God go I".

After the immediate crisis passed, there were a number of proposals put forward as ways to sterilize the mail. One of these suggestions was to irradiate the mail with massive doses of radiation. This was actually done on mail that was known to have passed through some of the high risk facilities. Much of this mail was held up for sometimes several weeks while it waited irradiation. In November 2001, this mail started to arrive. Unlike regular mail, the irradiated mail had a yellowish tint to it, and the documents inside had a yellowish brown cast to it, almost as if it was heated almost to the point of charring. The paper itself was also more brittle than normal from the exposure to millions of rads of radiation.

This gives me an idea for a node on mail sterilization....