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MIT urges handling mail with caution

MIT Director of Public Safety Anne P. Glavin released the following safety advisory on anthrax:

The U.S. Postal Service said Tuesday it has had only two confirmed incidents of the U.S. Mail being used to transport anthrax bacteria.

The Postal Service posed the question, "How likely is it that someone would receive a harmful biological or chemical substance in the mail?"

The answer was, "The Postal Service delivers approximately 208 billion pieces of mail per year. Presently, there has been only one confirmed incident of anthrax bacteria being sent through the mail."

MIT Mail Services is watching out for suspicious letters or packages following incidents in the United States of mail suspected of containing anthrax bacteria. As a precautionary measure, many mail handlers are wearing latex gloves to do their work.


People who handle mail in MIT offices may wish to follow similar procedures to allay concerns or make sure that cracked hands or fingers don't expose them to suspicious substances.

People should wash their hands frequently, and call Campus Police if they find a suspicious piece of mail.

Hypoallergenic latex gloves may be used, or ordinary latex gloves (for "food service, cleaning, auto repair and industrial use") may be used. Persons who are allergic to latex also may wear cotton dermal gloves that are available from most pharmacies. The Biosafety Office recommends the hypoallergenic gloves, N-DEX* Ambidextrous Powder-Free Nitrile Gloves, Code 6005, which come in sizes S, M, L and XL and are available from VWR Scientific in Room 56-070.

What to do

Campus Police and the Biosafety Office will respond of calls about anthrax or other biological substances.

If you believe a package is suspicious, call the Campus Police. Dial 100 or x3-1212.

The Postal Service recommends against opening suspicious letters. However, if you come upon it unexpectedly, there are detailed instructions about handling mail, suspicious powders, or questions about room contamination at the Centers for Disease Control web site.

Suspicious mail

Some characteristics of suspicious mail., according to the US Postal Service include the following:

  • Parcels that are unexpected or from someone unfamiliar to you.
  • Are addressed to someone no longer with your organization or are otherwise outdated.
  • Have no return address, or have one that can't be verified as legitimate.
  • Are of unusual weight, given their size, or are lopsided or oddly shaped.
  • Are marked with restrictive endorsements, such as "Personal" or "Confidential."
  • Have protruding wires, strange odors or stains.
  • Show a city or state in the postmark that doesn't match the return address.

Other characteristics, according to the FBI include:

  • Excessive postage
  • Handwritten or poorly typed addresses
  • Incorrect titles
  • Title, but no name
  • Misspellings of common words

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease that is not spread from person to person, according to a health advisory issued at 9 p.m. Friday night by the Federal Centers for Disease Control.

"Anthrax organisms can cause infection in the skin, gastrointestinal system, or the lungs. To do, so, the organism must be rubbed into abraded skin, swallowed, or inhaled as a fine, aerosolized mist. Disease can be prevented after exposure to the anthrax spores by early treatment with the appropriate antibiotics. Anthrax is not spread from one person to another person," the CDC said.

"For anthrax to be effective as a covert agent, it must be aerosolized into very small particles. This is difficult to do, and requires a great deal of technical skill and special equipment. If these small particles are inhaled, life-threatening lung infection can occur, but prompt recognition and treatment are effective," the CDC said. The CDC also issued a fact sheet on the symptoms of anthrax and other biological threats.

MIT Medical

MIT Medical issued an open letter Friday about "Responding to Chemical and Biological Terrorism." Dr. David V. Diamond, M.D., Chief of Internal Medicine, MIT Medical, said, "MIT Medical clinicians are on alert to identify unusual patterns of illness and are prepared to sound an early alarm in case of suspected or threatened attack. Key MIT Medical staff are working with other MIT leaders and our broader community to coordinate appropriate triage and communication in case of a potential or actual attack. MIT Medical clinicians are available to talk with students, staff, and family members about concerns or anxieties generated by ongoing events.

"The U.S. government has stockpiled medical supplies (antibiotics, vaccine, testing, and protection equipment) throughout the country, which are positioned to be delivered anywhere in the U.S. within12 hours. This plan would match finite supplies with the greatest need, a basic public health goal.

"Dispensing antibiotics to individuals to have "just in case" would quickly deplete current supplies and create a major health risk to patients needing treatment for common infections unrelated to any attack. This kind of individual antibiotic "hoarding" clearly threatens the public health, and has been strongly advised against by federal and local public safety, professional, and health organizations. For these reasons, MIT Medical has advised its clinicians not to dispense "just in case" antibiotics."

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