Recent incidents of ricin being mailed to the White House and members of Congress are a chilling reminder that the mail system continues to be used by those wishing to do harm. The targets may often be political leaders or the media, but those same tactics can frequently become directed at companies as well – and the people most at risk are usually rank-and-file employees. Some simple but critical steps taken after the 2001 anthrax attacks can greatly reduce the risk.

In the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks, the Federal government made major changes in mail screening to address the threat of bio hazards delivered through the mail. I have been directly involved with helping a range of Federal agencies institute those changes and the immediate detection and identification of the recent ricin mailings shows how successful they have been. The changes also offer a path that individual companies can follow to better protect their employees.

Similar to how the Federal government approached mail screening, below are four steps private companies can use as well:


1.    A Layered Approach Is the Best Approach. No one approach can protect against all threats. That’s why Federal agencies responsible for screening mail didn’t just institute one protection to improve threat detection – they instituted several including a range of technologies that complement each other. That multi-layered system ultimately proved very effective when the ricin attacks occurred. This approach is key for companies considering how to protect themselves. The right combination of imaging, detection and identification technologies can provide the most effective protection and ensure good value for the investment.


2.    Consider the Threats. Before making investments in mail screening technology, Federal agencies first wanted to identify the range of threats they faced. In 2001, anthrax and other biohazards were obviously very near to mind, but they weren’t the only ones. Mailed explosive devices also had long been a threat, so screening systems had to be able to detect biological and chemical agents as well as explosives. Carefully considering the full range of threats, they faced helped them to invest wisely in the detection technologies they needed, and the return on investment was demonstrated in the 2013 ricin attacks.


3.    Don’t Stop The Mail. For the Federal government, dramatically slowing mail service to improve screening was not a realistic option – and it isn’t for most companies either. The good news is that effective detection and identification solutions can detect and allow for the isolation of suspicious packages while allowing regular mail to continue unimpeded.


The best combination of capabilities begins with a conveyorized X-ray system that provides high-resolution images to the mailroom operator, which means most mail parcels will be cleared without further scrutiny. Any alarms resulting from X-ray screening can then be confirmed using another method. For example, chemical identification using spectral-based technology, such as FT-IR (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy) as well as Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) provides excellent complements to X-ray imaging to support detection and identification of suspicious packages.


4.    Keep Your People And Technology Ready. Almost a dozen years elapsed between the anthrax attacks and the recent ricin mailings. During that time Federal agencies that screen mail faced enormous budget pressures that presented significant temptations to cut back on employee training and technology service. To their credit, they resisted those pressures and ensured that their people and tools were ready when the next threat emerged. That ready posture made a significant contribution to detecting, identifying and responding to the ricin mailings before any harm was done.


Investments in mail threat detection and identification technologies can dramatically improve an organization’s ability to protect its employees without impeding its work. But both the people and technologies involved must consistently be trained and serviced to ensure they will function at their best when they are needed most.  


Mailed threats to the president, members of Congress or the media get much of the attention. But threats to private companies are unfortunately very real as well. The actions Federal agencies took after the anthrax attack to better prepare themselves to quickly detect, identify and respond to future attacks paid off during the recent ricin mailings. Those same actions provide a scalable check list other companies can follow to better protect themselves from unwelcomed surprises in the mail.