Stamping out terror

Goal: Two Maryland companies are designing a system that will use DNA detection to scan mail for biohazards.

March 25, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

In a shop that builds radar and military electronics and is generally in the business of making things smarter and deadlier, Northrop Grumman Corp.'s unit making postal-sorting machines always seemed like an anomaly.

But now that the nation is at war with terrorists, the obscure Baltimore-area unit is angling to play a key role in protecting Americans from what is no longer an unlikely threat: the U.S. mail.

Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, which has a Maryland operation, and Environmental Technologies Group in Towson are designing a system that will use DNA-detection technology to scan mail for anthrax and other biohazards. The system is being offered for sale to the U.S. Postal Service, which says it wants to spend as much as $2.4 billion on safety equipment during the next five years.

Lockheed Martin Corp. has designed a similar system and will compete for the business. Postal officials won't say which companies they are talking with or what they are talking about.

Still, Northrop Grumman's postal services division is moving beyond mail sorting and into the business of homeland security.

"I think everybody's worrying, not just the U.S. Postal Service but international and commercial mail sorters, even greeting-card companies," said Vicki Spira, director of postal systems for Northrop Grumman's Electronic Systems sector in Linthicum. "Everybody is worried about their media being used as a vehicle to transmit some kind of biohazard. There's a potential business opportunity for us that wasn't really there before."

The U.S. Postal Service released a report this month detailing its new emergency-preparedness plan, a reaction to the anthrax-laced mail that killed five people last year, including two postal workers. The agency's priority, the report said, is re-opening mail-sorting facilities in New Jersey and Washington that have been closed since the anthrax scare.

Nearly as pressing is the installation of several safeguards to protect mail handlers and the public from contaminated mail, and to make terrorists who might spike mail with contaminants easier to catch, the report said.

The Postal Service plans to install video cameras in post offices, using time-stamped video images to keep a record of who mails what. They plan to increase security at large mail-sorting stations that are typically closed to the public, particularly at truck entrances.

Postal officials have begun irradiating some mail to sterilize it and are planning to install air-cleaning vacuums on mail-sorting machines to remove spores or dangerous particles from the air. They have asked private contractors for ideas about making the nation's 350,000 mailboxes safer to use, perhaps by lining them with disposable bags.

Among the most promising methods available for detecting biohazards in the mail, the report said, is polymerase chain reaction monitoring - essentially, testing the air for signs of a known pathogen's DNA. The Postal Service wants a prototype PCR system installed on a mail-sorting machine as soon as it can get one, and it expects to spend $200 million installing the machines in nearly 300 mail-sorting centers around the country.

"The Postal Service is not immune to the possibility of being a terrorism target again, and we believe the threat level increased with the media publicity surrounding the delivery of the anthrax-laden letters to the Senate," the report says. "The Postal Service believes, and is acting on the assumption, that the threat for the inappropriate use of the mails continues."

Northrop Grumman is working with Cepheid Inc., a California company that specializes in PCR technology, and Environmental Technologies Group, which makes chemical- and biological-agent detection systems for the military. Lockheed Martin's system also uses PCR technology.

The machines would be automated, taking periodic air samples from around the mail-sorting equipment and conducting regular checks for suspicious DNA. But company officials will say little more about how the systems might work. If a hazard was found, the sorter would be shut down and decontaminated, and nearby postal workers would be advised to seek treatment.

Bio-detection would be a new business for Northrop Grumman's Baltimore-area division, but mail sorting is not. For 11 years, the Linthicum facility has made automated sorting machines for the Postal Service. It is the main supplier of machines for sorting magazines, catalogs and other "flat mail."

Though the mail and threat-protection businesses have rarely overlapped, merging the two would hardly be a challenge for one of the largest defense contractors in the world, Northrop Grumman officials say.

"We're not really an equipment manufacturer per se. What we do, mostly, is solve postal-sorting problems," said Spira. "So, in that sense it's not that much different than the defense business. It's the same set of skills, the same core competencies. It's just about mail."

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