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ANCHORAGE - The U.S. Postal Service has installed new equipment in Alaska that's designed to monitor mail for anthrax.
The Biohazard Detection System device unveiled in Anchorage is part of a billion-dollar effort taking place around the nation to prevent anthrax attacks through the U.S. mail like the ones seen in 2001. People got sick and some died when they were exposed to the spore-forming bacteria.
U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and a top official of the U.S. Postal Service were on hand for the unveiling of the device Saturday at the mail-sorting plant at the Anchorage airport.
Tom Day, vice president of engineering for the Postal Service in Washington, D.C., said Stevens was instrumental in securing federal funds to deploy the detection system.
The new system works by hooking onto a mail-handling machine, in place at large sorting centers. The machine, a conveyor belt of sorts, takes in all "collection mail" - primarily letters that come from mailboxes around town or the blue Postal Service boxes. The machine shuffles the letters to make them face the right way and stamps them with a bar code and date.
The Biohazard Detection System involves placing over part of the conveyor a small hood, where continuous air samples are drawn and tested for anthrax using DNA matching.
Packages and metered mail - circulars or "junk mail," for example - do not go through the detection system.
Collection mail poses the biggest threat when it comes to anthrax, said Mark Daly, the Postal Service's emergency preparedness manager for Alaska.
Unlike metered mail, it is not always clear where the letters come from, he said. And collection mail is pinched when it goes through the canceling system, increasing the chances that if there is anthrax in a letter, the deadly spores will be puffed into the air. That happened in 2001, Daly said.
Anthrax has never been found in the mail in Alaska, but there are regular scares, Daly said.