New Anthrax Detection System Unveiled

A new anthrax detection system is up and running at the U.S. Postal Service's Oakland hub. The detector uses technology developed at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories.

The first of its kind on the West Coast, the system will check every letter that comes into the Oakland Processing and Distribution Center for anthrax.

In response to the anthrax attacks in late 2001, in which two postal workers in Washington, D.C., died, 100 postal centers nationwide are in the process of implementing detection systems at a total cost of $175 million.

"Within the next couple months we should have all facilities with canceling machines covered," said David Nehring, emergency manager for the Oakland facility.

Processing centers in San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento and Las Vegas will have working biohazard detection systems in place within the next few months.

The system uses technology originally developed by scientists at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories to detect human DNA at airplane crash sites in Vietnam in hopes of locating bodies. The same technology can be used to detect the DNA of anthrax and other dangerous biological matter and to make medical diagnoses in emergency rooms.

"It's a very handy system," said Pat Fitch, an engineer with Livermore's Chemical and Biological National Security Program. "You can even use it to do cancer diagnosis."

Fitch was part of a team of scientists that deployed the detection system at the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The detector was also used in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks to aid in decontamination efforts.

It works by taking samples of the air and concentrating any microscopic particles into sterilized water. Next, the particles undergo a process that makes copies of genes until there is a big enough sample to test for DNA. Then the system compares the DNA from the test sample to the DNA signatures of known biological hazards.

The post office's detection system is based on this technology and was tailored specifically by several companies -- including Northrup Grumman, a global defense company based in Los Angeles and Cepheid Inc., a genetic testing company in Sunnyvale -- to test letters.

So far, the postal detection system is capable of detecting only anthrax, but in the future it could be upgraded to include other biological agents, Nehring said.

A detector has been added to each of the Oakland hub's 10 canceling machines, where letters first enter the processing system and stamps are canceled. The letters pass under a hood where air is continuously sampled. Once every hour, the particles in the air are concentrated into a testing cartridge. Less than 30 minutes later, the test is complete.

If the system detects anthrax, an alarm sounds alerting workers, and Nehring and other emergency personnel are automatically called in to implement a response plan.

The canceling machines are automatically shut down, and the center is completely evacuated. Employees go through a decontamination process, and the perimeter of the building is secured. Any mail trucks that have recently left the building are ordered to return.

Then, postal inspectors in hazardous materials suits enter the building to get the samples from the detectors and take them to a lab to confirm that they contain anthrax.

"If it does come back positive from the lab, the FBI will join us because anthrax is considered a weapon of mass destruction," said postal inspector Jeff Fitch.

The goal is to protect workers and contain the threat at the facility, said Nehring.

The Oakland center processes between 600,000 and 2.5 million letters each day from five counties stretching from Calistoga to Fremont and Oakland to Brentwood.