Postmaster General John F. Potter said Wednesday he can't guarantee the safety of the mail, and he other postal officials began suggesting Americans wash their hands after handling a letter.
Improved safety gloves and masks are being sent to mail workers as the Postal Service awaits next week's delivery of its first high-technology equipment to sanitize mail.
Worries have mounted about mail safety because of anthrax cases in Florida, New York, Washington and New Jersey, at least some of them stemming from mailed items.
Deborah Willhite, a senior vice president of the Postal Service, said the agency is simply urging people to use common sense.
"We believe that people should wash their hands in soap and water after they handle their mail every day, just to make sure that if anything is on the envelope, that they're clean," she said in an interview.
"We have no reason to believe that there would be anything on them, but what's the problem with clean hands?"
Potter stressed the agency has delivered more than 20 billion pieces of mail since Sept. 11, and only a handful of anthrax cases have been reported. However, he admitted that he could not guarantee the safety of all mail.
The post office is scrambling to tighten its health and safety systems after two workers died of anthrax and others became ill.
"We are taking concrete steps immediately to protect employees and the public through education, investigation, intervention and prevention," Potter said Wednesday.
The Postal Service is at war, Potter has said, insisting that the agency will continue to deliver the mail.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Wednesday that he wouldn't recommend shutting down the system but would consider closings in targeted areas.
President Bush released $175 million to help the agency, and the postal governing board authorized an additional $200 million in emergency spending to deal with the crisis.
The high-tech sanitizing equipment coming next week uses an electron beam to kill bacteria and spores and is similar to technology used to sterilize medical equipment and sanitize foods.
Willhite said where to locate the equipment is being determined by postal engineers and the equipment's manufacturer.
Mail sent to Congress already is being held for screening, she said, and there is "absolutely not" any plan to destroy mail.
The post office also reported that it has bought a 90-day supply of gloves made of Nitrile, a high-grade plastic, for use by postal workers sorting the mail.
The agency also is in the process of obtaining advanced face masks for workers that can screen out 95 percent of bacteria including anthrax spores, officials said.
Willhite said she could not name specific masks until the agency is sure it can obtain enough of them.
However, at least some federal mailroom workers already have received advanced breathing protection.
Ken Vaughan, president of Neoterik, a maker of breathing masks, said his company rovided masks last week to the mail room of a federal department, which he would not name. The masks can cost as much as $300 each.
Postal officials also said the agency has started using a vacuum cleaning system on its machines - instead of blowers - and switched to anti-bacterial cleaning solutions.
Mail delivery is not being restricted, Willhite said, but she added: "I think we're having a little bit of a shakedown cruise in moving mail from Brentwood to the other facilities."
Brentwood, Washington's main mail sorting and distribution center, was closed Sunday because of anthrax contamination, and its work is being done at facilities in suburban Maryland.
Anthrax didn't seem to worry Washington-area residents who bustled in and out of neighborhood post offices Wednesday.
"Look, we have to go on with our lives, you know?" said Julia Delisboa of Washington's Georgetown area, who stopped in the post office of the wealthy Washington district of Palisades. "I don't know why, but I'm really not scared yet. It doesn't seem like a widespread thing."
Palisades resident Bill Smith added: "Statistically, we're talking about one in a billion chance that a letter could arrive in your mailbox with anthrax."
At the Ross Veterinary Hospital one door down from the Cleveland Park station, an office manager who identified herself only as Liz said she hadn't thought twice about using the post office next door.
"I don't think anybody's worried about their little neighborhood post office," she said.
The Postal Service is part of the government but does not normally receive tax money for operations. It is expected to pay its own way from postage and related charges.
Even before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the agency was looking at a potential loss of $1.6 billion this year and has requested permission to raise rates to compensate. Mail volume has fallen since the attacks, which is causing further declines in income. The post office also is near its borrowing limit, a senior postal official said.
By Randolph Schmid © MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed