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.