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Safety experts: No universal system set up to screen mail

Packages travel on a conveyor belt for sorting

Packages travel on a conveyor belt for sorting at the main post office in Omaha, Neb. on Dec. 14, 2018. Credit: AP/Nati Harnik

Public safety experts said the U.S. Postal Service has no system to universally screen for mailed bombs, and said a watchful eye for identifying suspicious mail is essential to protecting individuals and institutions.

"The public should not have the impression that all of our mail is screened like going through security at the airport," David Chipman, a retired agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Thursday. "That's not the case, and we know that from a string of cases."

The postal service advises local governments and businesses to set up their own mail screening programs.

“Screening every piece of mail is logistically difficult,” the postal service said in a statement emailed to Newsday.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the New York State court system, said mail arriving at courthouses is passed through metal detectors and handled in areas away from the public. He said a memo went to court employees Wednesday, reminding them to "continue to follow security protocols while remaining vigilant to not touch, move or handle any suspicious or unknown packages.”

After anthrax received by mail in 2001 killed five people in Connecticut, Florida, New York City and Washington D.C., and injured 17  , the postal service announced it was stepping up efforts to intercept dangerous materials sent through the mail and to advise the public on ways to protect themselves.

But although the service made greater use of biohazard detection, X-ray and other technologies, postal officials still warn that because of the volume of mail, it's possible for dangerous items to slip through.

Bombs can be crafted in a range of shapes and sizes and even letter-size mail can be weaponized, according to a statement posted on a postal service website. Even relatively small explosive devices, like the ones that appeared to target Democratic Party supporters this week, can be deadly, experts said.

“Even if this is a hoax, rather than a serious tactic, hoax bombs are a crime, also,” said Jimmie Oxley, co-director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center of Excellence in Explosives, Detection, Mitigation and Response.

Last October, a pipe bomb allegedly sent by a frequent critic of the Democratic Party detonated in a post office in east Chicago, injuring a pregnant postal worker.

The postal service recommends that before opening mail, people should look for suspicious signs, such as an unusual odor, oily stains, leaking powder, a misspelled addressee, excessive postage, or no return address. The USPS says recipients should avoid the item and call law enforcement.

A number of the pipe-bomb packages that targeted Democrats this week made it far into the mail system despite having many of the listed clues, including misspellings, excessive postage, homemade labels and high-profile addressees.

“These look big enough to hurt anyone within a 3-foot radius, maybe further,” Oxley said. “They are very dangerous to anybody in the vicinity, so they are no joke.”

Andew Smith, The Associated Press

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