Danger: Handle With Care

Let's just say no one was in a rush to check their mailboxes," says Dave Saltonstall, a writer at the New York Daily News. From Hollywood, where some movie studios stopped distributing screenplays and other mail, to Washington, where officials at the U.S. Postal Service fielded a rush of calls from worried branch-office workers, public fears about potentially lethal mail disrupted business as usual last week and loomed as yet another drag on the nation's battered economy. At this point, the actual threat remains statistically remote--only two pieces of mail have tested positive for anthrax (one in New York and one in Reno), while the Postal Service handles 680 million pieces of mail each day--but new attitudes about mail and new approaches to handling it are already taking hold across the country.

Mail distribution at CBS News, CNN and ABC News's New York and Washington offices was suspended while executives evaluated their mail systems and put precautionary measures into place; NEWSWEEK took similar steps. J.P. Morgan Chase issued an internal "anthrax advisory" asking employees to scrutinize all mail and packages carefully and to report anything suspicious. A Wal-Mart spokesman at the company's Arkansas headquarters said the company was being "prudent and vigilant on incoming mail."

While investigators continue to say that there is no proven link to the terrorism of Sept. 11, anthrax reports from at least three states triggered widespread anxiety in offices around the nation. No matter what policies companies put in place, experts say the burden ultimately falls on employees to keep the workplace safe from deadly mail. There are no good systems for detecting biological or chemical agents on mail, according to Jerome Hauer, director of crisis and consequence management for Kroll Inc., a risk-consulting company. "There's very little the mailroom can do about it, except screen for bombs," says Hauer, former head of the New York mayor's Office of Emergency Management. "Employee education is the biggest thing." To protect themselves, mailroom workers and secretarial staff are wearing rubber gloves. Among the anomalies workers need to watch for are letters with unknown or no return addresses, letters with inadequate or excessive postage and letters that are unusually thick or heavy.

As people eyed their in-boxes with a new wariness, postal officials were urging calm. "We are taking every reasonable measure to assure the safety of our employees and customers," Postmaster General John Potter said. Workers who had handled suspicious mail were instructed to wash their hands and put their clothes in plastic bags for the FBI. In fact, the service may be ill equipped to handle the growing concerns. There are currently only 1,900 postal inspectors to cover 40,000 facilities. "We can't even keep count of the calls we are getting now," says Washington-based postal inspector Daniel Mihalko. "We are relying heavily on help from law enforcement."

Fear of bioterrorism could hurt the Postal Service's bottom line, especially with the holiday season approaching. Revenues were up slightly in the 2000- 2001 fiscal year, to $68 billion, but they are down 4 percent since Sept. 11 compared with the same period last year. Postal officials link the drop-off to the overall economic climate, not specifically to terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, despite their reputations for excellent security, Federal Express and United Parcel Service both took a hit on Wall Street Friday. FedEx shares closed at $38.09, down 4.06 percent, while shares of UPS closed at $50.95, down 3.49 percent.

However unfounded they may be, workers' fears about biologically or chemically contaminated mail could transform the way business is done in the United States and around the world. If the public decides that traditional mail is simply too dangerous to deal with, American companies would be forced to change the way they communicate with their customers. "This actually could have a silver lining, because businesses would love to encourage people to handle billing electronically," says John Kasarda, management professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. "It's much cheaper for them." Such a development could well lead to the long-predicted demise of "snail mail." "I had one guy tell me that if it's not a fax or e-mail, he's not opening it," says Hauer. Compared with anthrax, computer viruses just don't seem like that big a deal.