Did you think a "glove box" was the compartment in your car where you keep the owners' manual, tissues, expired insurance cards and the beach-parking pass? If you're in the area of mail handling, then chances are you've become familiar with a new definition of "glove box" during the last few months.


The continuing reports of workers and citizens succumbing to inhaled and cutaneous forms of anthrax have caused plant managers and safety officers to turn to lab-product manufacturers for answers about handling mail that is suspected of having been biologically contaminated. What tools are these managers providing to their employees to shelter them from potential exposure? Some of them are using glove boxes.


Maybe they're not all calling it a glove box, but the isolation/ containment cabinet traditionally used in laboratories for protecting researchers from bacteria and viruses is finding its way out of the research and pharmaceutical labs. It is now showing up in corporate mail centers, schools and a host of locations never considered being at risk for biological attack. Orders from sources as diverse as state prison systems and microchip manufacturers are being filled by the companies that manufacturer and distribute glove boxes.


The interior of a glove box is isolated from the outside environment. It has a pair of attached gloves, which are also sealed to the box. The gloves allow the user to manipulate materials inside the box without exposure to the materials being processed.


There are a number of companies manufacturing glove boxes. The technical attributes and operation of the glove boxes vary widely, as do the prices. Basic design considerations include a box with an isolation feature that protects the operator and ambient environment from the biological material or process contained inside. Optical clarity for good visualization of the materials, flexible gloves that allow the inspector to manipulate the sample and an ergonomically designed viewing surface for reduced fatigue are all important. Some of the glove boxes are sealed units, and some manage isolation using airflow and a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter. Accessories include: air locks for isolation prior to introduction of materials into the chamber and sleeves used to join a series of units together.


In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Paul Glader (Nov. 20, 2001, pg. B4) quoted Michael Thompson, chief executive of Plastic Concepts, a manufacturer of glove boxes, as saying. "We are expecting long term that this [the glove box] may be a regular office appliance or household appliance." ·


One company, whose standard inventory of glove boxes was wiped out by orders during early October, has added resources to meet the need for a small, safe and inexpensive unit suitable for an office or mail center environment. Bel-Art Products, a Pequannock, New Jersey company, has created a sealed, portable glove box. Its dimensions are 27 inches wide x 13 inches deep x 22 inches high. The gasketed opening for inserting packages and materials has an 8-inch I.D. Its list price is $795 a companion to their larger, traditional isolation glove box.


The Labconco Corporation of Kansas City, Missouri recommends the Purifier Class I HEPA filtered enclosure. This enclosure uses a built-in blower to draw air into the cabinet, creating an air barrier between the user and the material inside. An integral, 99.9% efficient HEPA filter removes any particulate, including bacteria and viruses, before exhausting the air back into the room. The unit is 2 feet in width. The list price is $3005. If more workspace is required, there is also a 3 foot width.


Other manufacturers can offer advice on just what to expect from these enclosures and how to prepare your employees for using them effectively. Brian Coy, sales director of Coy Laboratory Products, located in Grass Lake, Michigan warns that the manipulation of a letter or package inside a glove box while wearing the Neoprene attached gloves can be a tedious experience. Keith Landy, who is the general manager of Purified MicroEnviron-ments in Miami, both a manufacturer and a distributor of products for air purification, points out that success with any process involving possible contaminants involves an understanding and establishment of procedures. How will it get from the mail truck to the glove box? Who will make sure the procedure is followed?


There are some interesting offers designed to help mail handlers cope with this perplexing challenge. Safety.Com, an Internet provider, will supply a "loaner" glove box should yours be contaminated and removed by law enforcement authorities. Should you start stocking up on masks, biohazard bags and disposable gloves? And how will you dispose of the disposable gloves? We are definitely treading in new territory. For the ultimate expertise on the threat of biological contamination, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.bt.cdc.gov/documentsapp/anthrax/ 10122001handle/10122001handle.asp) and the U.S. Postal Service (www.usps.com/news/2001/ press/pr01_1010tips.htm) are the ones to ask.


As customers with questions about tools for handling suspicious mail continue to come into the laboratory products manufacturers, the mail handling industry itself continues to seek safe, economical and reliable ways of minimizing risk for its employees. Gloves boxes are just one of the choices.


Jackie Swartzberg is director of New Business Development for Bel-Art Products, a manufacturer of equipment and supplies for the laboratory, educational, industrial and safety markets. For more information, you can contact her by e-mail at jswartzberg@belart.com or phone at 800-423-5278, ext. 4257.