Danger Lurking in Your Mailbox

Do you remember 10 years ago when it was becoming a scary thing to open the mail? In the weeks following the September 11th attacks details began coming forward about letters sent through the United States Postal Service laced with anthrax. Over a two month period nearly 20 people were infected with anthrax and five died, including Connecticut’s Ottilie Lundgren (a 94 year-old widow from Oxford).

Heading to the mailbox, for some, became something to have anxiety over. No longer was our biggest complaint about unwanted credit card offers and other junk mail. Instead, our treasured catalogs and cards from friends were now potential weapons. While the government officials asserted that Lundgren wasn’t targeted, it was almost more unsettling. Were random mailboxes vulnerable to terrorism?

Ottilie Lundgren

Lundgren’s was the last death linked to the anthrax attack by mail (on November 21). The Hartford Courant summarized Lundgren’s longevity and unexpected death:

The woman who had survived the worst the 20th century had to offer – two world wars, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, polio epidemics – died of inhalation anthrax amid a nationwide alarm over acts of biological terrorism using anthrax-tainted mail.

Mail sorting facilities were undergoing a major cleansing to prevent deadly spores from latching on to more letters. But for many (especially in Connecticut after Ottilie’s death), times were still tense.

Some decided against mailing Christmas cards and holiday greetings by the USPS. Others were content opening mail with gloves and outside. If ever a season that needed holiday cheer by mail, it would have been the season following the attacks of September 11th. For it’s part, the USPS annual holiday commercials became tributes to the suddenly brave men and women who sorted and delivered mail, despite a brief period of uncertain safety. The commercials also offered a sense of the country’s resilience, we’ll all forge on.

For the most part we have recovered, maybe everyone except the USPS itself, but we can’t say for sure that their financial woes wouldn’t have happened without the mail scare of 2001.

The source of the anthrax tainted mail was never fully realized, at least not according to all sources. The New York Times recently reported that a scientist is disputing the FBI’s closure of the anthrax case.

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