The United States Postal Service has processed more than 2 trillion pieces of mail since anthrax was mailed to politicians and members of the media in an attack that killed five and sickened 17 in 2001.
Last week letters containing the deadly toxin ricin were mailed to President Obama, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, and Mississippi judge Sadie Holland. This week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said that an envelope found at a Washington, D.C., military base was an “alleged ricin incident.”
With the recent attacks it’s easy to question how easily someone might use the USPS to launch future attacks.
But chemical attacks are so few and far between — nationally USPS processed 160 billion pieces of mail last year alone — Chicago USPS spokesman Mark Reynolds said that security procedures have not been changed in response to the ricin letters.
“USPS places a high premium on protecting its employees, customers, facilities and the mail,” Reynolds said. “We are proud of our record in this area, and working with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and our other federal, state and local partners, we are confident that the mail will remain safe throughout the foreseeable future.”
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is the federal agency tasked with enforcing and investigating all mail-related crimes ranging from mail fraud to dangerous mailings. They are also in charge of ensuring that the billions of pieces of mail in the USPS system are safe.
One USPS employee, a letter carrier for 19 years who chose not to give his name out of concern for possible repercussions, wasn't quite as confident as Reynolds.
Estimating that he handles a couple thousand pieces of mail a day, he said Thursday, “we don’t know what we pick up because we don’t see it. So [a toxin] could be anywhere in there. Anybody could be a nut out there that sends stuff through the mail.”
But not everyone feels that way.
“I think that with how things are going now, you can never say never, but I'm not concerned that it would ever affect me personally,” said Phil Schmitz, one of several customers interviewed, said as he was dropping mail off at the USPS Loop station on Thursday. “I would say I trust more than I don’t trust.”
According to Reynolds, Chicago is home to between 2,500 and 2,800 mail drop boxes and 48 Post Offices. From there mail is sent to one of the six mail processing facilities in Cook County.
“Once a suspicious mail piece is detected, the employees on site activate a specific plan of action, which includes contacting the U. S. Postal Inspection Service, and taking measures to protect the employees and any customers in the vicinity,” Reynolds said.
Julie Kenney, spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said that one part of the action plan is to isolate the suspicious piece along with any additional mail that it might have contaminated.
Kenney said that some of the red flags that the public should watch for include: no return address, misspelled words, leaking unknown powder or a suspicious substance, if the package has excessive postage, excessive tape, oily stains, if it is omitting a strange odor, “and of course, protruding wires.”
As frightening as that sounds, Kenney said, “the chances of ever receiving a true dangerous piece of mail is very rare.”
According to the USPS website, nationally last year “inspectors responded to more than 3,300 incidents involving suspicious items, substances, powders or liquids in the mail or at postal facilities. Of those, 161 involved potential improvised explosive devices. No injuries or fatalities were reported.” Inspectors also preformed roughly 28,000 security reviews in 2012.
“While customers should use common sense when handling mail, the mail has remained essentially safe since the anthrax attacks,” Reynolds said.