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 (below) – 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.