Anthrax In Your Mail? Probably Not

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Authorities may be one step closer to solving two of the nationís most puzzling anthrax deaths. Their new theory is that Ottillie Lundgren, a 94-year-old Connecticut woman, and 61-year-old Kathy Nguyen of the Bronx may have received pieces of mail that were cross-contaminated by anthrax-laden letters bound for the offices of Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.

Investigators believe more people may receive cross-contaminated mail, and with that in mind have tracked more than 300 of the letters that passed through the Trenton, New Jersey mail processing facility at the same instant as the contaminated letters made their way to Capitol Hill. Authorities in the areas that should have received the letters are on alert for anthrax symptoms, but thus far havenít seen any new cases. No word yet on whether officials will try to track down the rest of the letters that may have come in contact with the Senatorsí letters — which could number in the tens of thousands.

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So there may be trace amounts of anthrax floating around our vast and labyrinthine postal system. Does this mean we should all panic? Start opening our mail in a vacuum-sealed hallway? The short answer, as you probably guessed, is no. For a more considered response, TIME.com spoke with Dr. David Straus, Dr. David Straus, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Texas Tech University Health Science Center in Lubbock.

Should this new development prompt great concern?

Dr. David Straus: On the one hand, we canít tell people not to worry, that thereís absolutely no anthrax out there, because we donít have that guarantee. On the other hand, the average citizen shouldnít be overly concerned about opening their mail.

Youíll note that both women who appear to have contracted fatal cases of inhalation anthrax from cross-contaminated mail were older, and the older a person is, the more likely they are to suffer a lethal infection from a dose that is far below lethal levels for someone with a healthy immune system. Now of course those two women may have coincidentally both received letters contaminated with a huge dose of anthrax, say a million spores, which would probably kill anyone, but that seems unlikely.

What do you think about the now popular practice of opening mail outside, and directing it away from yourself as you open it?

Thereís nothing wrong with doing something like that; it doesnít hurt anyone. Doing these things allows you to continue with your life. Plus, if there are anthrax spores inside your mail, opening it outside and away from you reduces the chances of inhaling it in the first place.

What I worry about is people saying, "Thatís it! Iím never opening mail again!" Thatís not a realistic response.

Do you think the government is doing enough to protect us from anthrax in the mail?

I think the federal government is doing the right thing, not instilling a fear of the mail in the public. They donít want to create a panic, and for good reason — I really donít think a panic is warranted.

Weíre doing all we can: Physicians have been told what to look for, and medical authorities in affected areas are on alert. Weíre also learning that even if people do inhale anthrax, they can be successfully treated if the symptoms are caught early on. That should be comforting to everyone.