Concerns that anthrax could spread through the US postal system have officials rushing to evaluate several powerful options for improving the safety of the nation's mail.
But the task of safeguarding the mail - and the workers who handle it - is likely to remain the purview of government. Zapping letters with high-level radiation at the post office, for instance, would help. Putting them in a microwave at home wouldn't.
For individuals waiting and wondering what to do, the best thing, experts say, is to keep perspective on the crisis - on the fact that the anthrax attacks are aimed at high-profile people and places, including the White House. They're not targeted at the general public.
Even the risk of "collateral mail" - anthrax-tainted letters contaminating other mail - appears slight.
"If you're a mail handler in a mail room, maybe wear gloves and a surgical mask," says John Clements, an immunologist at Tulane University in New Orleans. The reality is that anthrax "is a very poor weapon that's very good at spreading terror." He adds, "the antidote to terror is information."
Authorities say 44 people have been exposed to anthrax nationwide since Sept. 11. Of those, 12 have tested positive for infection. Three of the 12 have died. As a precaution, several thousand postal workers in Washington and New Jersey are taking medication amid concern about exposure in postal facilities. Several such locations have been temporarily closed.
Overall, anthrax has been found in or en route to four (possibly five) media outlets, Capitol Hill, and the White House. Bush administration officials say that a machine at a remote mail-sorting facility tested positive for anthrax, but that the White House itself is safe. President Bush also promised $175 million in new spending to boost mail safety.
Postmaster General John Potter has announced plans to use new machines to decontaminate the mail. He expects delivery of the units to begin Nov. 1.
Postcards are set to arrive in every US household this week with tips for personal protection, including washing hands in case of handling suspicious mail. While such simple steps could be useful, experts advise individuals to keep two things in mind:
First, the perpetrators probably don't have very much anthrax, so they're sending it to high-value, high-profile targets. "Are they really going to send it to John Q. Public on Lovely Lane?" asks Dr. Clements.
Second, even "collateral mail" is unlikely to cause a major problem. To contract anthrax by inhaling it requires breathing in 5,000 to 8,000 spores, Dr. Clements says. Even if a contaminated letter brushed against an uncontaminated one, it's not likely to pass along many spores. Still, he acknowledges, a few spores could stick. That's why washing hands - or wearing gloves - may be useful. And in the wake of the exposures of postal workers, officials are reassessing the research that came up with the 5,000-spore minimum, noting that it was done decades ago - on monkeys. Human response to anthrax exposure, some warn, could be different.
Since Sept. 11, however, 20 billion pieces of mail have been sorted. Just a handful of those have been contaminated, so far as officials know. So the risks appear to be minuscule.
Yet anthrax does spark unusual levels of fear. "It's seen as a violation of the body - and so people become afraid and tend to act irrationally," says Howard Reisner, an immunologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In part to calm fears, the post office is considering several practical steps.
Irradiation. The same process is used extensively by the meat and fruit industries - and can render harmless any bacteria on the inside or outside of envelopes. It's still unclear which type of high-energy rays would work best.
X-rays, for instance, would be useful - and can penetrate an object. But nearby workers would have to be protected.
Gamma rays - used by meat producers - may be the best option, experts say. Unlike microwaves, they're "cold," so they won't cook the mail. They're also relatively fast: In meat plants, a semi-trailer full of ground beef - 40,000 pounds - is decontaminated in about two hours. The cost would be about 1 cent per envelope.
Mail "profiling." Under such a system, says Eli Argon, CEO of Advanced Mail Management in Potomac, Md., some letters would be pulled out for special scrutiny on the basis of their origination and destination points. Mail from New Jersey sent to high-profile buildings, for instance, might receive extra scrutiny. Like racial profiling, however, this could raise civil rights concerns.
A sophisticated bar-code system that's the mail's equivalent of telephone caller ID. It includes detailed return-address information that allows the post office and recipients to know exactly who sent the letter - and to trace its path throughout the mail system. Although the system would likely raise privacy concerns, it would make anonymous mailings much more difficult.
All these steps could help make the mail safer, though some caution against overreaction. "Does Des Moines [Iowa] really need to set up an irradiation system for the mail? Probably not," says Dr. Jim Dickson, a microbiologist at Iowa State University in Ames. "But in Washington, D.C., there might be a justification for irradiating some mail."
Clements, meanwhile, urges individuals to "do something practical" - and not microwave or steam-iron the mail. "Take your spouse out to dinner, hug your child, pray, whatever it is."