Chemical Mail Threats – What You Need to Know


Last month we took a look at the biological mail threats. This month I turned to the mail security experts at SoBran to talk about chemical threats.

What is a Chemical Mail Threat?

The Department of Homeland Security defines a chemical attack as “the spreading of toxic chemicals with the intent to do harm.” In the mail, chemical gas, solids or liquid agents are sent to an intended target individual or company. The threat is usually contained while the package or letter is being processed, and then could be released from the act of opening by the recipient, or by a timer or a remote.

What is Different About This Threat?

Since chemical threats are often contained until the delivery is opened, they are difficult to detect. The small size and light weight means they can be deployed using almost any national or local delivery service. This also presents unique challenges for trying to identify their presence in your organization’s mail and deliveries.

Furthermore, with a very modest amount of material, the chemical agent can cause significant and immediate casualties in a building.

What are the Types of Chemical Threats?
A diverse range of chemicals can be formulated, stolen or otherwise procured for use with malicious intent.

These chemical threat agents can be poisonous vapors, aerosols, liquids or solids that are either naturally occurring in the environment or synthetically produced.  General categories include:

  • Nerve agents (i.e. Sarin)
  • Blood agents (i.e. Cyanide)
  • Pulmonary (choking) agents (i.e. Ammonia, Chlorine)
  • Blister agents (i.e. Mustard)
  • Toxic Industrial chemicals (i.e. Chlorine and Phosgene)

What Should We Look for?
Because of the very small quantity of agent needed for a chemical threat, detection is problematic.
In addition to knowing the general Signs of Dangerous Mail - many chemical agents can have a unique odor and color. Be alert for:

• Unexplained odors (smell of bitter almonds, peach kernels, newly mown hay, or green grass)
• Droplets of oily film on surfaces
• Unusual liquid or vapors

Do We Have the Correct Equipment for Detection?
Most organizations employ X-ray screening, but X-rays are effective for visible threats, like explosives. Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats all require specialized equipment and training. Needed screening equipment includes an air sampling chemical sensing system – both automatic and handheld.

Organizations can set up their own screening equipment at their own location. When cost of equipment and training is a factor, mail can be screened at a 3rd party offsite screening facility. With these “offsite mail screening” facilities, you have no capital costs and pay a monthly fee that is typically based on the volume of mail screened. (For the record, SoBran operates several of these facilities.)

How Can We Ensure Protection?
Your mail screening facility should have chemical detection sensors installed in the loading dock area and the mail screening area. These sensors should provide both an audible and visual alarm that can be detected in the immediate area.

You can safeguard your people and your assets against the chemical exposure threat. Advance preparation is essential to assessing and managing a chemical threat that may come in the mail.  As always, early detection and accurate identification are critical to enable effective treatment and to prevent additional exposures of chemical threats.  Every mailroom should have a solid understanding of the chemical threats risk, and a written security plan on how to respond.

Basic steps to Chemical Mail Safety include:

1. Put a plan in writing
2. Install correct sensor equipment
3. Train employees
4. Run practice drills

If this is not possible, consider outsourcing mail screening to a third party or sending mail to a third party screening facility.

Stay vigilant and next time we will cover radiological threats. As always, I appreciate your comments.

Biological Attack by Terrorists Increasingly Likely


“A biological attack by terrorists that could kill up to 30 million people is increasingly likely due to the ease with which pathogens can be created and spread, Bill Gates has warned.”

In light of the latest headlines about the intensified biological threat, we think it is important to understand the threat and how to protect your organization.

What is a Biological Mail Threat?
The Department of Homeland Security defines a biological threat as “the intentional release of a pathogen (disease causing agent) or biotoxin (poisonous substance produced by a living organism) against humans, plants, or animals. An attack against people could be used to cause illness, death, fear, societal disruption, and economic damage.”

The DHS makes a distinction between the two types of biological threats:
• Transmissible agents that spread from person to person (e.g., smallpox, Ebola) or animal to animal (e.g., foot and mouth disease).
• Agents that may cause adverse effects in exposed individuals but that do not make those individuals contagious to others (e.g., anthrax, botulinum toxin).

What is Different About this Threat?
There is an important difference between biological threats and the other types of mail threats. Mail bombs and chemical and radiological attacks are often more easily identified, and typically consequences can and must be managed immediately.

Because of the minuscule size and amount needed of the biological agents, this threat is not as immediately recognizable - which means consequence management could be delayed enabling contamination to travel and spread.

As we learned with the 2001 anthrax letters, large quantities of weaponized spores can be distributed using one envelope. Utilizing a more sophisticated ‘bomb,’ they can also be disbursed through an aerosol method from an enclosed flat envelope or parcel.

What are the Types of Biological Threats?
Bacteria (i.e. Anthrax, Plague and Smallpox)
Viruses (i.e. Smallpox or Ebola)
Biotoxins (i.e. Ricin or Botulism)

See the full CDC list here

What Should We Look For?
Most often fine powder is the only visual clue. However, a dangerous agent like Anthrax is almost imperceptible since so little is needed to spread both fear and sickness.

Furthermore, in many cases the powder is a result of the mail handling process itself. Few individuals realize the level of automation involved in the mail process that causes some substances that are solid when mailed to become powders by the sorting equipment used at postal facilities.
Even though the majority of these type of mail threats turn out to be either the result of mail processing or attempted hoaxes, the threat of bioterrorism is more real now than ever. Each suspicious package or letter has to be treated seriously.

Do We Have the Correct Equipment for Detection?
Most organizations have X-ray screening, but X-rays are primarily used for explosives. Like chemical, radiological and nuclear threats, biological agents require specialized equipment and training.

Organizations can set up their own screening equipment, or can cost-effectively have their mail screened at a 3rd party offsite screening facility. Needed screening equipment includes Bio-collection devices and BioFlash detection air sampling units.

How Can We Ensure Protection?
Effective countermeasures are available against many of the bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Advance preparation is critical to assessing and managing any biological threat that may come in the mail.
Every mailroom should have a solid understanding of possible biological threats, and a written security plan on how to respond. Basic steps to Biological Mail Safety include:

Taking action:
1. Put a plan in writing
2. Install correct equipment
3. Train employees
4. Run practice drills

If this is not possible, consider outsourcing mail screening to experts or sending mail to a third party facility.

Next time we will cover chemical threats. I’d like to hear your comments.

Stay Safe,

Soma K. Martin and your SoBran SafeMail Team


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Are You at High Risk for Mail Terrorism?


A variety of factors, both internal and external, can help determine the vulnerability of your workplace.


Answering "yes" to any of these questions puts your business in the high risk category:

  • Has your organization appeared in the media?
  • Has your organization been engaged in a lawsuit?
  • Has your organization been threatened with a lawsuit?
  • Has your organization made public statements on sensitive issues?
  • Is your organization a member of an industry whose services, research or products could be the subject of public controversy?
  • Has your organization experienced a recent reorganization or buy-out requiring layoffs?
  • Has an employee made threats to harm the company or any other employee?
  • Has your organization attracted political or potentially controversial attention?
  • Has your organization done business internationally?


If your business is High Risk - view our infographic to see how offsite mail screening can better project your employees and your assets.

Benchmark Your Mail Security

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

We recently surveyed the industry about their mail security. The results were surprising - see if you agree.

See the Results

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Learn how to protect your employees and keep your business running.

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