Welcome aboard ‘The Anthrax Express’
By F. Paul Valone
During the anthrax scare following 9/11, as Washington’s Brentwood mail facility closed after exposing postal employees to the bacillus, I watched mail trays being loaded aboard my aircraft at Washington National airport. The following column was the result, and ran in The Charlotte Observer on November 6, 2001 under the title “Welcome aboard ‘The Anthrax Express.’”
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. From the flight deck we’d like to welcome you aboard ‘The Anthrax Express,’ non-stop service to your local hospital. Sit back and relax: Federal agencies assure us the potentially anthrax-infected U.S. mail riding in the cargo compartment beneath your seat is of no danger to you.”
File that under “Airline Announcements You Will Never Hear,” of course. But at precisely the moment thousands of postal employees and hundreds of mail centers are being tested and treated for anthrax exposure, as Postmaster General John E. Potter admits he can’t guarantee safety of the mail, such mail continues to ride as cargo aboard passenger flights.
Since anthrax spores haven’t been found on the outside of mail containers (yet), the U.S. Postal Service, the FAA and OSHA have pronounced them “safe.” Decide for yourself, but as an airline captain I don’t find that reassuring.
Because transportation of “Hazardous Materials,” including “Infectious Substances,” is tightly regulated, the official airline dodge seems to be: “The post office hasn’t told us anthrax is in mail containers, so we don’t know its there.” Corporate lawyers have apparently spoken.
And how many air miles is ol’ Bacillus anthracis racking up? No one seems interested in discussing that either, but given that anthrax just appeared in an embassy mailbag to Lithuania, you can bet it’s becoming a frequent flier.
Some considerations of anthrax aboard airplanes you might find enlightening: Despite a massive investigation, anthrax transmission remains a mystery. Many victims have had no apparent contact with infected letters. In particular, the death of a Manhattan hospital employee raises the specter of cross-contamination between sealed envelopes.
Letters thus far identified contained weaponized anthrax, finely milled and treated to reduce electrostatic charge, to maximize aerosol dispersion. Merely opening the letter to Senator Tom Daschle reportedly released billions of spores.
Meanwhile, every day under postal contracts, untold quantities of mail are boarded onto passenger flights. Although much is Express Mail, easily traceable to senders, some is First Class Mail, comprising envelopes just like Daschle’s.
Although under postal regulations senders of certain packages are screened, First Class envelopes are not. At present, mail is neither sterilized nor sealed before being shipped. What go into the cargo compartment—directly beneath your feet—are unsealed mail trays, boxes and canvas sacks just like those at your local post office.
Lest you assume cargo is isolated from passengers, let me assure you otherwise. An aircraft is pressurized and air-conditioned using air tapped from its engines. That air circulates through both the passenger and cargo compartments before being vented overboard.
Making matters worse, modern aircraft increase efficiency by recirculating cabin air. Air recirculation has been studied for transmission of other diseases, notably tuberculosis. In fairness, recirculated air is filtered down to particles of .3 microns in diameter, while weaponized anthrax spores are 1 micron or larger. So if you’re comfortable having a HEPA filter between you and a Cipro-enhanced vacation, read no further.
Now consider the effects of cabin air pressure. Have you ever opened a can of soda in an airplane? It foams over because although aircraft are pressurized, they aren’t pressurized to sea level. To minimize pressure differential—and stress on the fuselage—cabin altitude climbs as high as 8,000 feet. Recall that air tends to flow from areas of higher pressure to areas of lower pressure. As the cabin altitude climbs (and pressure drops), air will flow out of mail shipments and into the recirculated air you breathe.
Summarizing, mail containing weaponized anthrax is being boarded into a closed environment with unsuspecting airline passengers under conditions maximizing aerosol dispersion. This, our government assures us, is perfectly safe.
Oh, and don’t worry: The air is filtered. Really.
While postal workers (who’ve discovered mail hazards first hand) are suing to enhance their safety and FedEx pilots are demanding protection, little is being done to safeguard airline passengers and crew.
Because neither rain nor snow nor anthrax should stop the mail, the USPS is gradually introducing ion beam sterilization equipment to kill biological agents. Given the immense volume of mail, however, it will be months—if not years—before sterilization is fully implemented. In the meantime, mail boarded onto aircraft should be shrink-wrapped or otherwise sealed in industrial plastic.
So if you’re unhappy sharing your flight with a biological weapon, call your airline and ask what they’re doing to protect you. But first, contact the Federal Aviation Administration at 866-289-9673 (phone) or 202-267-5091 (fax) and ask why they’re more interested in protecting you from fingernail clippers than anthrax.
FAA general information: 202-366-4000
FAA consumer hotline: (800) 322-7873
From CNN.com (“Anthrax turns up in VA hospital mailroom”)
November 3, 2001 Posted: 11:10 p.m. EST (0410 GMT)
• Citing a "serious risk to aircrews," Federal Express pilots Friday asked company officials to implement a battery of safety procedures to safeguard them from anthrax exposure, including providing anthrax vaccinations. To underscore its request, the FedEx Pilots Association cited the treatment of 32 FedEx employees for what it called "suspected anthrax exposure." (The CDC has said these are not suspected cases.)