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Posted November 6, 2001 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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How safe is the mail?

By Carolyn Keister Baker

As anthrax continues to be prominent in the news, questions multiply and grow more insistent.

How safe is the mail in the Northern Shenandoah Valley?

Where do letters and packages go before they arrive in local mailboxes?

Does incoming mail go through the Brentwood processing center in northeast Washington, D.C., where four postal workers contracted inhalation anthrax, including two who died?

Does the mail pass through other troubled spots where anthrax has been found? Is cross contamination possible?

Answers are not simple, postal officials say.

Where the mail travels before arriving at a home varies and the possibilities are as vast as the country. The route of mail depends largely on the point of origin. Often mail is handled by multiple processing facilities, postal officials say.

"The incoming mail to the [Winchester post office] could come from any place," Winchester Postmaster John Herleman said.

But the great majority of mail destined for the valley "does not go through the Brentwood facility" or other contaminated spots, said Deborah Yackley, spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service.

If a letter is mailed from Washington, D.C., it will be processed by one of five mail processing centers, Herleman said. Brentwood is one of the five, but it is currently closed amid the anthrax scare, he said.

The vast majority of letters mailed to valley residents are processed through one of two facilities: The Dulles processing center near Dulles International Airport, for residents in Woodstock and north, or the Charlottesville processing center for residents in Edinburg and south, Yackley said. A processing center in Merrifield is also used for mail collected in Woodstock and north, Yackley said.

All processing centers along the East Coast -- from Boston to Miami -- have been or will be tested for anthrax contamination, including the Dulles and Merrifield facilities, Yackley said.
Results from environmental tests at Dulles and Merrifield were negative, Yackley said.
However, results from a Dulles postal retail facility at the airport, which is not a processing facility, came back positive for trace amounts of anthrax, according to Greg Colburn, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service.

Local letters -- letters that originate in a 226 ZIP code and are mailed to a 226 ZIP code -- are largely processed at the Winchester post office and never leave the valley, Herleman said. But when the Winchester facility is overtaxed, it may send mail to be processed at Dulles, he said.

As an example of routing, a letter mailed from Shawnee Mission, Kan., to Front Royal would first go to Kansas City, Mo., before traveling by air to either the Merrifield or Dulles processing center, Herleman said. From there, the letter would be sent to the Winchester processing center, and then to the Front Royal post office before arriving at its final destination in the town.

Residents in the valley are responding well to the anthrax scare, postal officials said.
"I haven't seen a great deal of worry about it," Edinburg Postmaster Bill Anderson said.
Few Woodstock residents have expressed concern, Woodstock Postmaster Randy Painter said. Post office window clerks and postal workers with mail routes are being questioned, but most queries are being answered through the Postal Service's customer service line. The telephone number is (800) 275-8777.

Residents have been supportive of postal workers and have expressed their thanks and concern through countless letters, Herleman said.

"We have gotten very encouraging letters," Herleman said.

The U.S Postal Service cannot guarantee the safety of all mail and has asked that people wash their hands after handling the mail.

But Herleman is cautiously optimistic.

"Is it time for everyone to be in a heightened state of awareness? Absolutely. We are very concerned about the safety of our own employees. If we see a suspicious piece of mail we re going to deal with it carefully," Herleman said.

"But as far as worrying or being alarmed or frightened. I don't see any reason for that," Herleman said.

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