Postal workers in Md. carry out duties with extra attention, gloves

Mail keeps moving, but not without anxiety

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 17, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Local firefighters in rubber suits and plastic gloves descended on the post office in the tiny Carroll County community of Finksburg yesterday to respond to an anthrax scare, one of many rattling postal workers in Maryland and across the country.

Mail sorters reported finding a yellow, powdery substance spilling from an envelope at the Finksburg branch of the U.S. Postal Service on Route 140, police said. The firefighters sealed the envelope and passed it on to members of an FBI response team, who took it away for further testing.

"We're just being overly cautious because we've had some suspect mail," explained William L. Ridenour, who oversees some 80 post offices in the Baltimore metropolitan counties.

Letter carriers and post office clerks are finding themselves at the front in the war on terrorism since several letters that have traveled through the mail have tested positive for the deadly bacteria.

The Postal Service has created a task force to focus on anthrax threats, and postal workers across the country are getting refresher courses in how to spot and handle suspicious mail in the flood of 680 million items delivered each day.

"The U.S. Mail is too important to this nation to allow confidence in the mail to erode," said Postmaster General John E. Potter.

Some of the nation's 800,000 Postal Service workers have started wearing surgical gloves and masks along with their red, white and blue uniforms.

But if they are treating this new threat with caution, most postal workers appear to be staring it down with the same quiet courage that carries them through hostile weather and past angry dogs.

"It has affected me, yet I just do my job," said Michael Rogers, 39, a mail carrier from Columbia. "I do look out for the packages or anything suspicious."

Letter carrier Shanun Yates, 25, of Woodlawn said he's a little concerned about the anthrax scare but not enough to wear gloves - at least not yet.

"I'm not really doing anything differently," he said yesterday while delivering mail in Sandtown-Winchester. "I've been more alert, observant, looking for that powdery stuff, but at the same time you'd know if you had some chalk or stuff on you."

Yates said many of the elderly people on his route have been asking questions this week: Can I open my mail? Are you sure there's nothing in there?

"And they're telling me to be careful," he said.

The threat of anthrax has posed some practical challenges for postal workers. Some protective gloves, for instance, can't be worn while operating mail-sorting machinery because they could get caught in the equipment, said Deborah Yackley, the postal service's Washington area spokeswoman.

Tearing sheets of stamps is no easy task in gloves, particularly the rubber ones made for dishwashing. Some workers favor those over surgical-style gloves because they are thicker and therefore seem to offer more protection, Yackley said.

Even so, Yackley said, about half of the 1,000 workers at her Northeast Washington facility have opted to wear gloves of some sort. That plant handles mail to Capitol Hill - including the anthrax-tainted letter that arrived Monday in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, she said.

Postal workers are a determined lot who keep the mail moving even through natural disasters, setting up makeshift post offices in vans, firehouses and city halls if need be, said Bob Novak, spokesman for the Postal Service district that covers most of Maryland.

"I can't explain it, but postal employees have an unbelievable dedication to their duty," Novak said.

Novak stressed that only a couple of letters known to have been carried through the mail have tested positive for anthrax. "We really don't want to create a panic situation," said Novak. "It's been two confirmed incidents. Up until last week, we've never experienced an incident of anthrax in the mail."

But statistical odds can go only so far in soothing fears at a time when the simple absence of a return address is enough to set off alarm bells, Novak acknowledged.

Across Maryland police and fire units responded to dozens of reports of potentially dangerous powders, including a relative handful of alarms about mail.

Early last evening Howard County firefighters responded to a call from the Maryland Orthopedics Center on the 3000 block of St. Johns Lane in Ellicott City where a woman reported opening an envelope that contained a mysterious powdery white substance. The envelope was sealed and delivered to the FBI for testing.

Yesterday afternoon workers at the post office in the American City building in Columbia were fretting about what to do with a letter a local business had turned in. The business thought the letter was suspicious because it had no return address and was postmarked Washington, D.C.

"Do you know the procedures?" the post office manager asked someone on the other end of the phone. "It's still here on our counter. Double bag it?"

The manager later declined to speak with a reporter. Novak said the letter would be sent to the FBI for testing.

Postal managers have been briefing workers to be cautious of packages with strange odors, misspellings and leakage. The workers have also been told to look out for mail that has either no postage or too much of it, feels heavy or uneven, or has a return address that does not match its postmark.

"We have to read this whole thing and be alert, be aware," said 82-year-old desk clerk Clif Nanton, holding up a black binder as thick as a phone book that the postal service recently sent to his post in the Oakland Mills village center.

The book lists hazardous materials - from accellerene to zirconium tetrachloride.

Nanton was taking it all in stride.

"When you get to be my age and you've been through World War II, you just accept each day a

Sun staff writers Laurie Willis, Sheridan Lyons, Maria Blackburn and contributing writer Melody Holmes contributed to this article.

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