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Inside the Dead Letter Office



In early October--as people began mistaking avocado for anthrax and seeing spores in their gas bills--police, fire, and health workers began unloading piles of suspicious packages at the Springfield and Chicago laboratories of the Illinois Department of Public Health. The FBI quickly took over the operation's management, declaring the labs "crime scenes," restricting press access, and prioritizing the testing of letters and substances based on their perceived level of threat. The feds aren't too chatty about how they decide what might be dangerous, but about 600 articles were summarily ruled out. An FBI spokesman allows that unopened mail goes to the back of the line.

Since October 5 the labs have received 1,376 items for testing, the majority of them in Chicago, where for weeks hundreds of low-priority samples waited their turn. There are up to eight tests that can be performed over two days to rule out anthrax, but "on day two we almost never see anything that looks reasonably like what we're looking for," says Dr. David Maserang, chief of laboratories for the Illinois Department of Public Health. Now that workers have swabbed, stained, and 'scoped most of the stuff--with not a single positive result and fewer samples arriving every day--life in the labs, which normally perform around 2.5 million tests per year, is finally starting to slow down.

The rest of the story: Has the anthrax scare interfered with your regular work?

Maserang: We just make better use of our time....A lot of this is an exercise for us. We're all learning as we go, although we've done a tremendous amount of work before this even came up in case of this eventuality. If anything ever really did happen that was really big, we'd already have a mechanism set up to handle it. We'll go back after this is over and examine what we've done. We'll have pretty frank conversations with the FBI, and say, "How can we do it better next time?"

TROTS: Have you ever had to conduct such a large number of tests before?

Maserang: Occasionally we get big food-borne outbreaks, and we'll have a pretty heavy volume of testing, say, for two or three days, but it won't be long-term. Usually, it's nothing that requires us to alter our work schedules, which we have done in this case.

TROTS: Can you describe the majority of the samples that have come in?

Maserang: Most of them are pieces of mail that people have gotten and they've been double bagged. Sometimes they'll put two or three items in a bag. They're usually brought in by public health workers. We require that they talk to the FBI before they come in. The FBI assigns them an accession number and priority. I'm not exactly sure how the FBI determines that. I think part of it has to do with information they have that you and I don't have. I'll accept it as they do it.

TROTS: Are you compelled to test samples that clearly can't be dangerous?

Maserang: I'm not sure how you'd know that without testing them. We are a little bit skeptical of people's credit card bills. They don't have crude handwriting on them, they don't have packets of powder in them, they didn't come from a Middle Eastern state--the kinds of things that have been portrayed in the news as being typical, whatever typical is. But again, you just don't know.

TROTS: You're ruling out anthrax, but do you determine exactly what the samples are?

Maserang: We started that early and it was getting so expensive and so time-consuming to go on and find out what it was...and we never found anything that was worth reporting. So I made the decision, because my budget was rapidly depleting, that we needed to stop doing that and to just focus on what it was that we were looking for. You know, if you take a swab of your hand and rub it on a plate of blood agar, I'm gonna get a plate full of bacteria but none of it will mean anything.

TROTS: What happens to the mail once the testing has been completed?

Maserang: The providing jurisdiction has the opportunity to retrieve it if they want, unless the FBI wants to use it to prosecute a case. We've seen a couple cases where people have actually sent letters that could perhaps be prosecuted. I don't know what they do with them, but they do have that option.

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