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Anthrax Scare: What is Being Done to Keep Food, Water and Mail Safe

Aired October 15, 2001 - 07:40   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: The current anthrax scare has many concerned about the safety of everyday needs like food and water. We have a team of reporters standing by with more on what is being done to keep your food, your water, and your mail safe.

Natalie Pawelski is in Georgia with a look at water safety. Bill Delaney is in Boston looking at postal safety, and Rea Blakey is in Maryland on the subject of food safety.

We begin with Natalie Pawelski in Georgia. Good morning Natalie.

NATALIE PAWELSKI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning Paula. Security has been heightened at reservoirs and dams across the United States. For example, here at Buford Dam, which holds back Lake Lanier, the drinking water supply for the city of Atlanta, the road that normally is open across the top of the dam has been closed and only employees with proper ID are getting through.

Security experts say that the nation's water supply system would be an attractive target for terrorists, but that it might be harder to poison than people might imagine. That would be - that's because you would need an enormous quantity of chemical or biological agent to poison something as large as a reservoir and you'd have to come up with something that can survive the trip through a water treatment plant, that would be able to survive filters and chlorination.

Because further down stream a distribution and water plants might be a little easier for terrorists to crack, water treatment operators are asking Congress for $5 billion to increase security.

Turning from water safety to food safety, we turn to my colleague Rea Blakey. She's at a farm in Maryland.

REA BLAKEY, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, we're at the Lewis Orchard Farm near Poolsville, Maryland where a family has owned this farm for about 100 years and essentially their security efforts here basically come down to a telephone network where employees or people who are around this farm would call into authorities should they see something suspicious.

And many farms across the nation, you will find that a scarecrow is basically the only security that's available. The other issue here has to do specifically with animals. There are 22 known lethal and contagious agents that could infect the animal livestock in this country and basically many of those diseases are not vaccinated against on a regular routine basis.

It leaves America's food supply extremely vulnerable. By the way, food agriculture in this country accounts for 15 percent of the gross national product and essentially we're talking about 22 million jobs. Now every year on average without the scare of September the 11th, there are some 76 million Americans who develop food-borne illnesses.

The safety of the food supply is an issue that's ongoing. However, at this point, agriculture officials know that America is extremely vulnerable. In fact, they're asking President Bush to appoint an agros terrorist specialist, if you will, to assist in the homeland safety that's under way.

And so it's an individual effort that each and every ranch and farm will have to take care of, but we are extremely vulnerable from a food safety advantage point.

Now to my colleague Bill Delaney in Boston at a post office.

BILL DELANEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks very much. We're in Brooklyn, Massachusetts just outside of Boston at a post office where some of the 208-billion pieces of mail that pass through the U.S. postal system go through every year.

Most of that absolutely safe, of course, a tiny fraction of it now concerns the law enforcement, the general public and the people who work in post offices. Each piece of mail that goes through a post office is handled by about six different postal employees.

Now post offices around the country have been on high alert since September 11th. Officials tell us that doesn't necessarily mean they've changed their procedures, everyone just being a bit extra vigilant. Evacuations at post offices around the country in the past few days including two post offices in the Boston area, which were evacuated because of suspicious powder found at them.

(INAUDIBLE) teams were brought in and officials did tell us they think that powder was not anthrax. It wasn't the right color. But a very edgy time for everyone. Paula Zahn alluded earlier to the employee, the editor at the Boston Globe, who fell sick this weekend and recalled a suspicious letter he had received a few weeks before, preliminary indications there that that Boston Globe editor does not have anthrax.

But hundreds of hoaxes over the years involving anthrax that the post office has been alerted to, making it all the more difficult what to be wary of, look for packages or letters that are of unusual size, that have postmarks or return addresses unfamiliar. Be aware of letters that say personal or confidential.

And if you do find something suspicious, common sense, don't open it, notify authorities.

Back to you Paula.

ZAHN: Very good advice indeed. Thanks so much Bill and thanks to the rest of you in our little whip around there, appreciate it.

The corporate mailroom has become another front in the battle over terrorism. Millions of pieces of mail are delivered by the post office every day and now the post office is faced with the grim knowledge that some of those letters may contain a deadly message, anthrax.

Investigators are looking into deliveries from U.S. post offices in New York, Boca Raton, Reno, Nevada and Boston, and the list could be expanded. Just so how safe is the mail?

Well joining us now to sound off on that question are Arnie Welber, a clerk from the United States Post Office and Manuel Gonzales Latimer, a postal inspector.

So Arnie, how nervous are you doing your job these days?

ARNIE WELBER, U.S. POSTAL CLERK: A bit - we observe when we go in when we look at our colleagues, we always have in the back of our minds, and this I do, am I going to see you tomorrow. I'm a bit concerned. Most of us are now.

ZAHN: What kind of help have your bosses given you? Have you asked for any protective gear to wear - gloves, anything like that?

WELBER: Yes we have and we would appreciate if our bosses would actually bring the gear to us instead of making us go pick up the gear, make it more accessible for us and more cooperation in that respect. Some of us have been denied gear specifically clerks - window clerks. I've been told or been denied latex gloves, and we find that's a little bit unfair and we would appeal to the postal officials to stop permitting window clerks to wear latex gloves.

ZAHN: So, Manuel, what is the defense to not provide these kind of materials to workers there, particularly since, you know, the polls show, the majority of Americans are very, very concerned about this.

MANUEL GONZALES LATIMER, POSTAL INSPECTOR: Well Paula, I guess the main defense to that is that there's really been no link as of yet in everything that's happened in the three locations - New York, Boca Raton and Las Vegas, where any postal employees have been diagnosed or found to have been in contact with any anthrax, an infection of any type.

So I think that's the most important thing. Since September ...

ZAHN: But as a simple precaution, I mean if you know a letter arrived at NBC studios and a woman contracted the skin variation of anthrax, you've got to assume that perhaps someone along the line in the post office might have touched that letter. Don't you almost have to make that assumption?

LATIMER: Well yes, there's a definite contact by postal employees to these letters, but what I'm trying to say is that there is no proof or there's no tests that have been performed where a postal employee has been diagnosed with anthrax, which is something good, and that's something all our postal employees should keep in mind and the public in general.

ZAHN: But why don't you want them to have the added security, even though you say that's the case, of just feeling safer on the job. What -- is there a cost figure here that's prohibited?

LATIMER: Well I'm not - I don't really know what the primary reasons are for the postal service to refuse. That are decisions that are made way above my head. You know, the postmaster general and his staff are the ones who are making the determinations. But I feel confident that our postal employees and - are the most important part of the postal service and their protection and security is of the utmost importance to us, and if we thought that gloves and masks were necessary, then I would imagine that would be something we would do.

But there is no reason to believe that's the case right now.

ZAHN: OK, Arnie, you've just heard Manuel lay out his case. Your reaction to that. Do you buy anything of what he said this morning? Are you still nervous?

WELBER: Well I'm still concerned. You know, we're also living in North America where we've never been bombed on until that dark day in history of September 11th. And biological warfare could strike anywhere - an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And I believe the postal service should be reaching out to us a little bit more than they anticipated - again, an ounce of prevention if worth a pound of cure.

ZAHN: Manuel, a quick closing thought in reaction to that this morning.

LATIMER: Well I think the best defense is common sense. I think if we allow the panic and fear to affect our everyday lives we'd be in definite trouble. I think our postal employees are safe and what we're putting out is everybody to be cautious and aware of what they're receiving, especially in the mail rooms, is going to be the best defense to all this and we'll put a pretty quick stop to all of this very soon.

ZAHN : I hope so. Manuel Gonzales Latimer, thank you for your time and Arnie Welber, appreciate your coming in as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you for inviting us Paula.


ZAHN: A pleasure.




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