Mail bound for federal offices in Washington is shipped daily to New Jersey, where the letters are blasted with electron beams to kill any bacteria that might be inside, the Washington Post reports. The Postal Service started the time-consuming and costly irradiation procedure after the anthrax attacks of 2001. The discovery of ricin in a Senate Office Building mailroom shows how easily another potentially deadly substance can slip through the safety web. If the ricin was mailed–which officials do not yet know–it avoided the precautions built around catching anthrax and other bacteria. Irradiation does not neutralize ricin. The biohazard detection systems that postal officials plan to install in mail-handling facilities in several cities in May focus on sampling for anthrax, not ricin.
Thomas G. Day, the Postal Service’s vice president for engineering, said yesterday that ricin is a threat that the agency takes seriously. The problem is that the more refined it is, the harder it is to detect. The biohazard detection systems can be modified to allow for additional technologies, which could include sampling for ricin, he said.
The Postal Service asked the White House to include $779 million in its 2005 budget request for more detection equipment to avert bioterrorism, but was denied, said postal spokesman Mark Saunders. Postal officials will go to Congress on their own to request the money and that they believe the ricin incident will bolster their case.
The ricin discovery has prompted federal investigators to consider whether the case could be connected to the unsolved 2001 anthrax attacks, which killed five people and sickened 17 others, the Post reports. The FBI and postal officials noted a number of superficial similarities. “That is obviously one of the main lines of inquiry that we’re pursuing,” one FBI official said. “There are a lot of similarities that certainly raise the possibility of a connection.”