It's next to impossible to detect which of the tens of millions of letters that flow through the United States Postal Service system contains anthrax and which contains merely letters. But some companies are proposing an interesting approach to safeguarding the mail: radically redesigned envelopes.
Mail-Well Inc., a commercial printer and envelope maker in Englewood, Colo., has eyes on new envelope designs — one of which may hopefully be able to detect and kill anthrax spores some day.
For now, the company offers rather simple redesigned products for its corporate customers. Its Safety Window Envelope, for example, looks just like an ordinary business-sized envelope but with an extra "window" along the bottom edge.
The idea is that any suspicious powder within a mailed envelope would settle along the bottom of the mailer. The plastic window — about the width of a finger — would then allow any mail handler to see the residue inside without opening the envelope.
But according to Bob Hart, president of Mail-Well's envelope division, the company is also exploring a hypothetical solution: an envelope that would detect — and possible kill — hidden microbes.
Hart says the company is talking with researchers and paper suppliers to develop such a mailer. The ideal solution, he says, would be to develop a paper coated with a chemical tuned to detect anthrax spores. Envelopes crafted from such a paper would then theoretically change colors in the presence of the harmful bacteria.
If such a concept could work, then it would be no stretch to also coat the paper with anti-bacterial solutions that would neutralize the anthrax spores altogether. "It would be an easy solution for us," says Hart. "But can it be done?"
Still a Long Shot
At the moment, it seems unlikely.
"I'm not sure they can do it," say Arthur Aronson, a professor of biological sciences at Purdue University. Since a hard protein shell protects inactive anthrax spores, "They are very resistant," he says. "The would have to coat [the paper] with something that would stimulate growth and then kill it [with antibodies] once it became active."
And Aronson says that even just detecting the presence of anthrax spores would be a difficult task for a piece of paper. "For detection, you'd have to have some specific antibody to detect that there was anthrax [in the envelope]," he says. And such detection methods only work in a lab environment, not as a chemical on a piece of paper. "Right now, there are no rapid detectors," he says.
International Paper, the world's largest paper producer and one of Mail-Well's suppliers, admits that the company currently cannot produce such an anthrax-killing product. But says company spokeswoman: "We are working to help our customers by conducting research on the possibility of such capability."
Simple Solutions Best?
And others also scoff that such a solution would be practical at all.
Dr. Richard Fuise, chairman of St. James Paper in Great Falls, Va., doubts that an idea as complex as treated paper would take off at all. And he says, "What happens if it doesn't work? That's a lawsuit waiting to happen."
Dr. Fuise's solution works on a different premise: Why should envelopes be solid containers? "From the stand point of the 'good guys,' we really have no need for an envelope that's a solid pouch," says Dr. Fuise, who also owns International Fluidics, a company that specializes in fast-dissolving oral drugs.
As such, his prototype envelopes, called Safetylopes, are studded with tiny holes along every edge. Based on his knowledge of how powder shifts, or "fluidity," he says the holes — each about an eight of an inch deep by a quarter of an inch wide — will always drain out any powdered contaminant, making them useless as potential instruments of mailed terror.
Dr. Fuise says that the holes, or "trench drains," can be crafted by cutters already used in current envelope production lines. And while Safetylopoes' tiny holes may make it seem less sturdy than normal envelopes, Dr. Fuise says that isn't so. As a test, his staff sent 1,000 Safetylopes through the U.S. postal system and none came back damaged.
"It's often times the simple that solves the problem," says Dr. Fuise. And he says it could be a solution to stopping mailed anthrax very soon. He says two undisclosed major supply companies are in discussions for production rights to his patented envelope designs.