Letter handlers get brunt of suspicious letters

FILE - Letters
FILE - Letters

SALEM, Ore. (KOIN) — Two letters sent to elected officials in the past two days have tested positive for poison.

One was addressed to President Barack Obama, the other to a senator.

Reports of suspicious letters came in from governmental offices across the U.S., including a white powder scare at Oregon’s Department of Revenue in Salem. Police evacuated an entire floor of the building Wednesday morning.

But suspicious mail like this doesn’t go straight to the politicians being targeted. It’s the letter carriers and office workers that often are most likely to be hurt by poisonous packages.

About 60,000 envelopes a day come into the Oregon Department of Revenue mail room during tax time.

“We’re always vigilant to make sure,” said Derrick Gasterini with the Oregon Department of Revenue.

Because it only takes one bad piece of mail to shut things down and produce a major scare.

On Wednesday morning, after discovering the white powder, Oregon State Police Lt. Mike Peterson said they set up a perimeter and waited for firefighters and their substance tests.

“It can basically determine any substance that can cause a threat to the population,” Major Paetz with the Oregon National Guard said.

On Wednesday, prior to the test results coming back, the scare shut down an entire city block in Oregon’s state capital. Inside the building, first-floor employees were evacuated, forced to leave, while the employees upstairs kept working.

“Hypothetically this could have been a lot worse,” Gasterini said. “There are a lot of people going through horribly traumatic things this week and we’re not one of them and we’re thankful for that.”

That’s because the white powder in an envelope in Salem turned out not to be hazardous. But, had it been, it is the letter handlers that would have been the ones exposed, even injured.

“We have machines that cut the envelopes open,” mail room employee Karen Brown told KOIN 6 News earlier Wednesday. “And when the envelope went through the machine, the white powder kind of puffed up into one of the workers faces.”

Whether the targets are lawmakers or government agencies, employees like these are the ones who first open and come into contact with those letters and whatever is inside of them.

“The vigilance here is really just about making sure we keep the employees safe,” Gasterini said.

In Salem Wednesday afternoon, the people directly in the line of mail are relieved the substance wasn’t hazardous.

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