WASHINGTON – Three months after four anthrax-related deaths among postal workers and mail scares in nearly a dozen federal government buildings, the post office is still scrambling to assemble the technology to detect and eliminate the dangerous spores from the mail.
The United States Postal Service is expected to submit a report to Congress next month detailing how it will spend the $500 million in security funds earmarked to it, the first time Congress has appropriated taxpayer funds to the quasi-governmental agency.
But by the time the expensive irradiation and detection technology is developed, experts say, it will be too expensive to employ nationwide and may no longer be a national priority.
"I think they might have gotten over-excited about the prospects of the technology. It doesn't look as though we are there yet," said Shane Ham, a technology analyst for the Progressive Policy Institute.
The anthrax attacks began in October when contaminated mail was sent through Washington, D.C., and New Jersey, reaching victims in those states, as well as in New York, Connecticut and Florida.
The Postal Service responded by hiring two companies to irradiate mail off-site for Capitol Hill at a price tag of $9 million. It also signed contracts for eight new irradiation machines and asked Congress for further research and training funds totaling $298 million.
While the machines continue zapping mail going to Capitol Hill, experts complain the radiation has produced health problems and other negative effects for human handlers. The irradiation has been found to alter the taste of foods, ruin film, warp electromagnetic tapes, and discolor glass.
"It's been shown to be a slow, destructive technology," said Gene Del Polito, president of the Association for Postal Commerce, a lobbying organization for mail-related businesses.
Furthermore, the electronic beams used in the process — similar to those that are used to sanitize food of bacteria like E. coli — may not be strong enough.
Likewise, the irradiation process has backed up mail delivery to Capitol Hill by weeks. The Postal Service would have to create a system that was fast enough to zap several pieces of mail per second to maintain current speed.
The other alternative is to screen all of the mail with detection technology, but experts are unsure whether that exists either. Postal Service officials said it needed $306 million to develop a system, of which the "most promising" technology appeared to be the use of lasers.
"All the major vendors are scurrying out there to find out how detection machinery can be fitted to existing machinery," said Del Polito. "But they are still in the process of accomplishing this."
Mark Saunders, a spokesperson for the agency, said it talked to more than 100 vendors in recent weeks, but would not discuss specifics until the final plan is submitted to Congress.
Most recently, defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which provides the Postal Service already with most of its mail-sorting equipment, has said it has come up with an inexpensive system to detect possible biohazards in mail using a variety of sensors and filters.
But observers are skeptical.
"I just don't know if the technology is there," said James Greenwood, director of the Office of Health and Safety at the University of California at Los Angeles. Building such a system "could take up to two years. It would be very expensive, a huge logistical nightmare."
The post office, already $1.6 billion in debt, may be barking up the wrong tree by trying to address security concerns. Administration officials admit that there is no sure-fire way to guarantee that mail is 100 percent safe, and fears about anthrax-contaminated mail are already abating.
"The rest of the American public is not worrying a whole hell of a lot about what's in their mail," said Del Polito. "Are we spinning our wheels on an issue that has only a moment of importance?"