New equipment that will be operational by April 8 should ensure that all letters passing through Duluth's mail-processing center are free of anthrax spores.
Two sophisticated machines destined for Duluth essentially will sniff envelopes in search of anthrax. The equipment is part of what the U.S. Postal Service calls its Biohazard Detection System -- a collection of technology that automatically collects air samples from mail and analyzes DNA to screen for anthrax.
Ron Gustafson, coordinator of the U.S. Postal Service's Northland District Biohazard Detection System, said he couldn't speak specifically to the cost of the equipment to be installed in Duluth but noted that the initiative's price tag is expected to be about $800 million.
All of the Postal Service's 282 letter-processing facilities are on track to have the anthrax detection systems operating before the end of this year. In all, 1,400 machines will be in use.
Ultimately, Gustafson said, "The entire mail stream will be protected."
Letters containing anthrax spores killed five people in 2001.
Gustafson said the Postal Service responded by quickly launching an effort to guard against another attack. He said that one in 15 jobs in the United States is related to a functioning mail system, making the Postal Service an essential cog in the nation's economy.
In addition to protecting employees, the equipment should bolster consumer confidence, said Jim Stanley, a communications director for the U.S. Postal Service's Northland District.
"We want to put our customers' minds at ease that their mailboxes are safe."
So far, 9.4 billion pieces of mail have passed through the detection system, and no anthrax has been found, Gustafson said.
If it is found at any facility, an alarm would go off, mail-processing functions would come to a halt, and the postal center would be evacuated, Gustafson said.
Workers who may have been exposed would be decontaminated with showers and would don disposable paper clothing. Gustafson said they would be transported to a site where public health official would provide them with antibiotics.
Gustafson said staff have undergone two days of training on how to respond. The Postal Service also has worked with the local fire department and first responders to make sure they are prepared if a contaminated letter is found.
If the equipment detects anthrax, inspectors would be dispatched to do further testing. No mail from the facility would move until it was deemed safe.