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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

No fear in SL's mail

Thursday, October 18, 2001

Police field a few calls on suspicious mail, but odds against anthrax worries.

For the people who handle your mail, caution is nothing new.

They have isolated a box leaking a white powder, only to find out it was laundry soap in a care package headed to a college student.

In another case, a Hazmat team was called in to a post office and an entire area isolated off, only to find that an envelope of white powder was in fact vanilla pudding mix.

Workers have thrown up the red flag on mail with strange odors and stains, which turned out to be hand lotion spilling from its container and makeup getting out of a compact.

Postal workers have turned in packages making a threatening humming noise - discovering later that one was an electric razor sent as a gift that had somehow turned on. In other cases, buzzing parcels turned out to be marital aids that proved quite embarrassing to recipients contacted by the suspicious authorities.

What they haven't seen is anthrax, or any other real biological or chemical risk of any kind, and that is important for the public to know.

"Every indication we receive is that there is no cause for people to panic about the current worries about anthrax being sent through the mail. The possibility of this kind of contact happening here is so remote that we really don't want to see it disrupt the American public's life," said Storm Lake Postmaster Todd Oxley, who culled the above list of false alarms from an extensive postal career.

There has been no mail even considered potentially suspicious through the Storm Lake Post Office since the terrorist bombings on September 11, he said, but the awareness within the office is certainly heightened nonetheless.

Storm Lake police have fielded a few calls on suspicious mail this week following the nationwide concerns about anthrax, but none of the letters checked out were any problem.

"We have had people call us in because they were a little worried about a specific piece of mail, in particular if there was no return address on them," Police Captain Bob Swanson told the Pilot-Tribune.

While none of the letters had ill intent, Swanson said it is not an overreaction to contact police if there is a concern. "People are being cautious, and that is understandable. We are all seeing these things together on the national news and realizing that we need to be aware about safety issues."

Police have not received any specific information about suspicious mail, Swanson said. "To me, if the postmark doesn't match up with the return address, or there is no return address, I might be more careful with it than in the past," he said.

Postal workers have been kept updated on concerns over biological or chemical hazards in the mail for several years now, long before the current anthrax concerns, Postmaster Oxley noted.

"Out of 208 billion pieces of mail delivered each year, there were 178 anthrax-type threats to government buildings, abortion clinics, schools and so on during fiscal 1999-2000. So far this year, there have been 60 threats. Up to the point where the letter was delivered to Senator Tom Daschle's office, they had by and large all been hoaxes," Oxley said.

If someone does receive an anthrax threat or mail they think could be contaminated, they should isolate it immediately, unopened, avoid handling it, and contact police, he said.

While odds are tremendously slim that such a threat could touch Storm Lake, the postal service recommends that people take caution with any piece of mail that is:

* Leaking an unknown substance

* An unexpected parcel or bearing a sender's name that is unfamiliar

* Mail addressed to someone who is no longer associated with the address

* Mail without a return address

* Mail with unusual weight in respect to its size

* Lopsided or oddly shaped mail

* Mail marked with "personal" or "confidential" from unknown sources

* Mail with strange odors or stains

* Postmarked from a place that does not match the sender's return address.

"If you get a piece of mail that is wet, stinks to high heaven or makes a noise, don't try to open it. It is best to contact local authorities to have it checked out. If there has been skin contact, be sure to wash immediately with soap and water. Local postal workers know the channels to follow with the postal inspection service, and citizens may simply call 911," Oxley said.

It is not unusual for the post office to become concerned about a particular piece of mail, even though those concerns have never turned out to be realized here, he said.

"Every time there is a question, we have to treat it as if it were a real hazard. The postal inspection authorities will advise us on whether it should be delivered, or whether it goes on the next truck to them to investigate," Oxley said. "Often, the first response is to contact the addressee to see if they were expecting something matching the piece of mail. In the case of the electric razor, they were able to tell us right away what that strange humming was. In the case of the marital aids, they are usually not so willing to admit they had ordered something."

The Storm Lake Post Office and all others are especially wary of packages being sent by airline - and had been for some time before the September 11 hijackings.

"We have a profile provided for us of how most bombs and other dangerous things get mailed. If a package is brought in to our office that fits the profile, it doesn't go to that plane, period, and will have to get where it's going by truck. That has been the case for four or five years, and when I worked at the post office in Des Moines, there were a few packages that fit the profile. There have been a few meeting the profile that have been sent from elsewhere and made it through to Storm Lake. In that case, we have to return it to the sender," Oxley said.

The profile is a carefully-protected secret, so that criminals do not learn it and find ways to get around it.

In Storm Lake, postal workers are concerned about the anthrax situation but not afraid, Oxley feels.

"The atmosphere is that everyone here now is pretty much beyond the initial shock they got in hearing that some of the anthrax problems may or may not have come through the mail. In Florida, several postal employees had to be screened for anthrax, but they did not test positive," he said.

"It is not a high concern here, although we do have federal, state and county officials working in Storm Lake. The approach is that we are trying to be a little more aware of the situation than we would have been on a day-to-day basis," Oxley said. "But I don't sense any fear here in Storm Lake."

The greatest concerns heard from the local public are not about the risk of contracting anthrax, but about the economic damage from unwarranted fear.

"Our patrons in the mailing business are very concerned that people will become scared and not open their standard mail. For many people, their livelihood depends on that mail being seen," he said. Mail to Congress is being re-routed away from the federal officials, which raises concerns that important, timely information from constituents might not reach their hands.

"From being in the local cafes for a couple of mornings, people are talking about anthrax, but I don't see a localization of fear. They talk in terms of what happened over there, not that they think it might happen here," Oxley added.

The information he has seen indicates that anthrax contact by skin can be successfully dealt with in all but 1 percent of cases, and as many as 8,000-20,000 spores of anthrax would have to be taken by ingestion to cause a severe case, he said, further stacking odds incredibly against an individual being stricken.

Postal employees are being allowed to use gloves and masks if they wish, but many prefer not to, because they have reactions to the latex, and worry that gloves might get caught in the mechanized mail systems, Oxley said. He has found a type of non-latex glove that can be made available in the Storm Lake office is any of the worker wish.

Regardless, the mail will go on, he says.

"The mail in a very real way links this country together. We will raise awareness to any problems that are perceived, but we can't allow that link to be disrupted by it," he said. "We hope people will keep the situation in perspective and realize that the risks are really quite low, but at the same time, we recognize that there are some evil people out there in the world today."

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