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Deputy Postmaster General John Nolan: Safety of the U.S. mail

John Nolan has been the Deputy Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service since February, 2000 and is a 19-year postal veteran. As New York City Postmaster and General Manager of the New York Division, Nolan managed the world’s largest post office. He is currently working on improving the postal system in light of the recent anthrax attacks. He joined the chat room from Washington, DC.

CNN: Welcome to Deputy Postmaster General John Nolan. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

JOHN NOLAN: Hi, I'm John Nolan, Deputy Postmaster General, and it's nice to be with you today.

CNN: How far along is the Postal Service's plan to acquire the machinery needed to prevent spread of biological agents?

NOLAN: We've purchased eight irradiation units [and have] options for additional equipment. We are continuing to look at technologies for sanitizing mail, in conjunction with the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the president. The director of that office has convened a panel of experts to help us in our evaluation of technology. At the same time [as] looking at sanitizing mail, we're also looking at detecting presence of bacteria in our environment. We're also looking with the Office of Science and Technology [and] with the military at different kinds of detection devices. So we're working on sanitizing, and working on detecting early in the process. One piece [of detection equipment] has just finished testing correctly, so we'll begin the purchasing on that shortly.

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 If you receive a suspicious package:
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  • Treat it as suspect; call 911

  • Source: FBI

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will only eight irradiation units be enough to cleanse the U.S. mail in the event of a "mass mailing" to a large number of addresses, easily gotten for some cash through most any advertising agency?

    NOLAN: A couple of points there. Number one, perhaps the safest mail you will ever get is that mail that is mass produced: advertising, magazines, etc. It's a closed environment. What you mentioned about buying mailing lists... you can go to any phone book in the country, if you want. Mass mailings tend to be manufactured in shops where the possibility of introducing something like anthrax is very, very remote. The more worrisome mail is what comes from [individual] collection boxes, one piece here, one piece there -- that's been the pattern so far.

    The other part of that question is, are eight units is enough? The answer to that is no. But these things aren't like sneakers, they're not mass-produced by the million. The company that makes them had eight units being manufactured for someone else, and they agreed to divert them to us for our purposes. Eight is all that was available. In addition to those eight units, we've contracted with some companies that already have this equipment being used for other purposes, basically irradiating bacteria on food, one in Lima, Ohio, and the other in Bridgeport, New Jersey. We're using them already to sanitize mail in advance of the receipt of the eight units we bought.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will this detection process have an effect on the prompt delivery we as Americans are accustomed to?

    NOLAN: First, thank you for saying you get prompt delivery. Appreciate that. :) We're trying to make sure that all vendors of this kind of equipment, whether detection or sanitization, understand that Americans want their mail on time, so they have to be quick. The equipment will help us process mail in a timely and safe fashion.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Scientists have said that simple UV and radioisotope sources are enough to destroy many biological agents. Are you considering using these types of devices?

    NOLAN: We have been considering everything that has been presented to us and our science team. We're experts in mail, not experts in irradiation or other technologies. We're relying on the best scientific minds that the country has to offer in this area. All ideas that come to us are passed through this committee of scientists to evaluate as a possibility. To date, the only technology that does both the job of sanitizing and in enough quantities to not delay it dramatically, is [electron beam technology].

    CNN: How much of a blow has this been to the Postal Service from a revenue point of view?

    NOLAN: I'd say in the first two months, between what happened on 9-11 and the anthrax problem, [we have been] probably impacted to the tune of about $250-300 million. To the extent that the volume stays down, because of concerns about mail, that figure could rise to a figure of around $2 billion. But that remains to be seen.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will these eight units be distributed across the United States, or in one section of the country?

    NOLAN: Right now, we don't want to get into specifics of where we'd put the equipment, but one area that's been a prime target has been the Washington, DC, area and government officials, so some will be placed there. Other locations will be determined based on judgments about where they might be most needed, and I'd rather not go into those locations.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will cards and letters be the only things irradiated this holiday season, or will food parcels be subject to treatment as well?

    NOLAN: No, it's only for letter and card mail. The technique we're using is not effective on parcels. There are other technologies better for that. Frankly, a small amount of the letter mail in the country would be going through it. So don't worry about mail slowing down. There was some question, though, if sending a fruitcake through the device might actually help the taste of fruitcake. But we won't go into that.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: If anthrax was to get through in the mail, would the U.S. Postal Service then be held liable ?

    NOLAN: I think the terrorists would be held liable. The postal service is a victim here. Postal service employees are victims. The American public is a victim. We're taking all the precautions as we can. We want to be a partner in finding the answers to these problems.

    CNN: What should I do to ensure that my holiday packages and letters arrive on time?

    NOLAN: Mail early and often, is my first statement. But Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year. We're recommending from a package standpoint, if you use our priority or express mail, make sure that you complete those mailings, if possible, by Friday before Christmas. You can check on our web site,, for mailing tips as well. Our peak day we anticipate for letter mail volume is the 17th of December, but any letter mailed that week through Wednesday or Thursday of that week, we'll have no trouble delivering. But the point is good... we have plenty of capacity. If you get a Christmas card from somebody that you failed to mail to, and want to get a last minute card to them, we'll have people ready to deliver. The tag line we use is, delivering the holidays is what we do best.

    CNN: Do you have any final comments for us today?

    NOLAN: We appreciate your business and your trust. Our 800,000 employees are doing everything they can to keep mail delivery on time, the same way that they've done it for over 200 years. Since the problem of anthrax first came up, we've delivered 35 billion pieces of mail, and only 4 or 5 have been contaminated. We're going to incredible lengths to insure that mail is safe for our customers. Other than that... have a happy and safe holiday season.

    CNN: Thank you for joining us today Deputy Postmaster General John Nolan.

    NOLAN: Thanks!

    John Nolan joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Thursday, December 6, 2001.


    • Office of Science and Technnology Policy

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