Can You Detect Anthrax in the Mail?

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said Tuesday on NBC’s Today show that his mail passes through an anthrax detection device before being opened. How does such a device work, and where can Explainer get one?

Explainer has had great success appealing to readers for help (for examples, click here and here and here), so let’s try it again. Here are the relevant passages from Daschle’s interview with Matt Lauer (emphasis Explainer’s):

LAUER: Tell me about the letter, Senator. What did it say? What stood out about it?

Sen. DASCHLE: Well, I think what stood out about it was the tape around the outside of the envelope. They have advised us not to speak specifically to the letter, Matt, because there is an ongoing investigation. But I think the tape itself was designed to keep the detectors from working properly and from detecting the anthrax inside. …

LAUER: I know that there is always a fairly high state of alert around the Capitol, especially when dealing with mail. But had extra precautions gone into effect since Sept. 11th?

Sen. DASCHLE: They had. We have an anthrax detection device now that all mail is subjected to. The problem is that it only really detects it from the outside.

After two days of reporting, Explainer can’t find anyone who’s heard of such a device. There are on-site anthrax detection devices made by companies such as Tetracore and Alexeter, and there are DNA lab tests made by companies such as Cepheid. But those devices wouldn’t detect anthrax “from the outside” of a package. (As a Cepheid spokeswoman put it to Explainer, “DNA, of course, is on the inside.”)

The Democratic leadership press office referred Explainer to the Capitol Police. When Explainer called the Capitol Police, the person who answered the phone said that Daschle was “probably wrong” and that Daschle may have “misspoke.” Then, without giving his name, he referred Explainer to the Capitol Police’s public information officer. The PIO (who is understandably busy) hasn’t called Explainer back yet. (When and if he does, Explainer will update this item.)

Did Daschle misspeak? Was he mistaken? Unless the Capitol Police possess supersecret military technology, that’s what Explainer assumes. But if you think Explainer’s overlooking something, e-mail your information and your source to explainer@slate.com.

Bonus Explainer: Several readers want to know if they should start microwaving their mail. According to an anthrax fact sheet from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it won’t do any good: “Not much will kill these spores. They are resistant to microwaves, heat and many disinfectants. If you burn your mail, that will work, but then you can’t read that letter from Aunt Marge.”

Next question?