The postal service sent conflicting messages about the safety of the mail today as investigators revealed that a New Jersey postal worker probably contracted anthrax by handling a letter contaminated by a sorting machine.
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Sources told ABCNEWS that federal investigators believe a New Jersey letter carrier diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax was infected by a piece of mail contaminated when it went through a data bar-coding machine. After the revelation, the chief of the U.S. Postal Service warned there are no guarantees that any mail is safe.
"We have very few incidents of anthrax in the mail," Postmaster General John Potter said in an interview with ABCNEWS, "[but] there are no guarantees that that mail is safe."
Potter urged people to "handle mail very carefully" and wash their hands after opening letters to guard against cutaneous or skin anthrax infections.
"Mail and our system is threatened right now," he added.
But by the end of the day, the postmaster's office was sending a different message as Deputy Postmaster John Nolan told reporters, "I can tell you this: that today there are letter carriers throughout the nation, including here in Washington, D.C., delivering mail safely."
However, USPS Vice Presdient Deborah Willhite, within an hour of Nolan's comments, refused to assure blanket safety, saying, "Neither I nor any other member of the postal service management is going to stand here and say, point blank, the mail is safe."
Sources tell ABCNEWS that investigators believe the machine that may have led to the New Jersey woman's infection was contaminated after processing a letter containing anthrax-laden powder. It was first thought the woman — one of three workers at a postal facility in Hamilton Township, N.J., infected with cutaneous anthrax — may have contracted the disease by handling one of the contaminated letters sent to the New York Post, NBC News headquarters in New York or Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office in Washington, all of which were processed there. But she was not working on the day those letters came into the facility.
The development raises fears that initially harmless letters could become cross-contaminated and then delivered to people's homes.
"The fact that machines can get contaminated does mean that a letter that might share a bin or a stacker on a machine could theoretically get contaminated," said Potter. "We think that the chances are very, very slim, but, … people should do things that are safe."
The mixed messages over mail safety as health officials in Topeka, Kan. said they were going to test all employees at a postal repair facility there. Officials said the postal facility received equipment in sealed containers six days ago from the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C., where two postal workers died from inhalation anthrax and four others are hospitalized with the same form of the disease. Ten employees at the Topeka facility have reported having flu-like symptoms.
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The day after a remote White House mail processing facility tested positive for traces of anthrax, the Bush administration announced a number of steps today aimed at dealing with the threat of anthrax: