International terror struck the United States on September 11, 2001, and America's world changed. Just a month later, the greatest postal system in the world came under attack by an unknown terrorist using a deadly biological weapon.


Postmaster General John E. Potter pledged to protect the mail, which is a vital part of the communications infrastructure of the nation. "We help keep people in touch and are an important element in moving the economy," he said. "It is critical that the U.S. Postal Service continue to provide this important public service to the people of America today and long into the future. And we will."


This summer, the Postal Service tested and will continue evaluating a Biohazard Detection System (BDS) aimed at protecting employees and customers from any future attacks. Installed at 15 mail processing sites nationwide, the system operates in conjunction with mail canceling equipment and is just one of several initiatives by the Postal Service to safeguard employees and the mail.


"There is nothing more important to the Postal Service than providing a safe work environment for our employees and securing the mail system for our customers throughout the nation," says Thomas Day, vice president of Engineering for the Postal Service. "This equipment will serve as an early warning system."


How BDS Works

The system works by continuously testing samples of air collected as the mail begins to move through the stamp-canceling operation.


Mounted on the front end of the mail processing system, the BDS consists of an air-collection hood, cabinet, local area network (LAN) and a site controller, which monitors the equipment. Air samples and any airborne particles are collected and passed to the cabinet, which contains the collection and analysis equipment that performs the biological testing.


The results of each test are then transmitted via the LAN to the site controller where the data is stored and distributed. These tests occur during each hour of machine operation and provide immediate notification of test results to facility management, allowing for quick emergency response to possible exposure to any biohazards.


The core of the system, according to Day, is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It is a process that essentially "photocopies" the genes of a sample. There is a template for the anthrax DNA sequence. The test sample is compared to the template to see if there is a match.


"Testing this summer took place during normal mail-processing operations and did not involve the use of actual or simulated biohazardous substances," says Day. "The process is entirely automated, and does not delay mail processing there is nothing in the system that is harmful to customers or employees. All items used in the testing were non-hazardous."


How BDS Was Developed

Immediately following the anthrax attacks in 2001, Postal Service managers consulted with the military, federal agencies and other experts to explore the possibility of developing a system that could provide rapid and accurate testing for the presence of anthrax. An interagency work group that evaluated the BDS design included:

  • The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases

  • The Naval Medical Research Center

  • National Institute of Standards and Technology

  • The Department of Agriculture

  • The Centers for Disease Control

  • The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab


    From October of 2001 to September 2002, more than 20 systems were tested before a prototype system was developed. Northrop Grumman, Smiths Detection of Edgewood, Maryland, and other team members helped design the first prototype system that was initially assembled for testing and installed in June of 2002 at the Processing and Distribution Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Other team members included Cepheid Inc. of Sunnyvale, California, and MRI Midwest Research Inc./

    Sceptor Industries of Kansas City, Missouri. #The success of that system in Baltimore prompted the Postal Service to expand testing to 14 sites nationwide to evaluate the system's performance in varying environments.


    A major concern of scientists involved in the pilot test was that false alarms might result in disruption of mail processing and delivery, force unnecessary evacuations of postal facilities as well as close processing centers while samples were retested. To date, with over 15,000 live tests completed, there have been no false alarms.


    "Testing in Baltimore helped us to make continual modifications and adjustments to improve the system's operation for the expanded testing at 14 additional sites this summer," said Day. He explains that since the anthrax attacks, the Postal Service has coped with more than 18,000 incidents involving suspicious powders, possible explosives and other suspected terrorist materials in the mail. Many were deliberate hoaxes, and none contained a biohazard.


    While nationwide testing was originally scheduled to begin in June, it was postponed while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed recommended public health guidelines for emergency personnel, public health officials and postal managers in the event that anthrax was detected.


    Now, as the Postal Service continues to evaluate test data and performance of the Biohazard Detection System from the 30-day test period, it will use that information to help develop plans for the eventual rollout of the system to other mail processing facilities.


    "The equipment has been carefully monitored, and we have every confidence that test data will prove the systems reliable and successful," says Day, adding that nationwide deployment of the Biohazard Detection System is expected to begin in 2004.


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