What is Anthrax and Four Steps to avoid its risks

Not all Hostile Environments are situated in emerging countries with poor infrastructure, corruption and inadequate law enforcement.  Sometimes, a Hostile Environment exists within the workplace, especially when anthrax is sent through the post.

Many people though still wonder:  what is anthrax exactly?

Bacallus Anthracis is an infectious bacterium that attacks the skin, lungs and gastro-intestinal tract of humans.  Whilst anthrax affects hoofed animals such as goat, cattle and sheep, humans become infected when coming into contact with infected animals.

Typically, such an infection is caused when anthrax spores come into contact with a scrape or cut on human skin, but breathing in the anthrax spores can often lead to the bacteria entering the lungs.  There, the bacteria spores sprout within a week and once the spores germinate, several toxic substances invade the body.  These substances cause internal bleeding, swelling and tissue deaths.

The symptoms of anthrax differ depending on the type of disease that is suspected.

There are three routes of Anthrax Infection:

  • If cutaneous anthrax occurs,

    an itchy sore that becomes an ulcer will be noted.  This sore is usually painless but is often surrounded by swelling.  A scab forms and usually falls off within a couple of weeks, although complete healing may take longer.

  • Inhalation anthrax

    creates fever, headaches and chest pain, usually within the first week.  With gastro-intestinal anthrax, mouth sores, vomiting, fever, bloody diarrhoea and abdominal pain are characteristics that the bacteria has spread within the body.  Generally, anthrax is treated with various antibiotics and such treatment can last for up to two months.

  • the one that occurs from the contact with animals

    represents the biggest and most dangerous risk.  It comes from the contact with animal hides, hair, bone products and wool.

Anthrax was developed as a bio weapon during the First World War and despite several countries stockpiling the bacteria, there is limited evidence to show that the poison was used in combat situations.

However, nearly a century later, a Florida newspaper employee died from inhaling anthrax powder.  The hospitalisation and death of Robert Stevens and 21 other people, infected with spores from a mail delivering anthrax powder, created fears that a new bio-terror tactic had been developed.

Subsequently, victims from mail attacks were noted in Berlin,Paris,London,Vienna as well as Washington D.C.  These mail attacks highlighted people’s  vulnerability to a daily routine mail delivery.

A decade later, the risk of anthrax powder infection – by cross-contamination, inhalation and skin contact – remains high and the panic caused by discovering white powder in the mail often paralyses an organisation.

Based on experience with several companies who have received mail with suspicious content, the general process has involved four steps:


  • – The mail is received in the post room and opened
  • – A “suspicious” substance spills from the envelope.
  • – A panic reaction occurs and post room staff are traumatised.
  • – The entire building is evacuated and the company loses productivity and attracts negative media exposure.


As mail is not screened by the National Postal Service, contaminated letters are often delivered to the mail room before being opened or placed directly on the recipient’s desk.  In both instances, once the letter or package is opened and a suspicious substance seen, the organisation comes to a halt whilst the security department responds – sometimes in an informed manner, but often not.

Now, a means of containing this risk has been developed using an Australian product called Powdersafe.  As it only takes one disgruntled individual, an envelope, a stamp and some unknown substance to create chaos in your organisation, it is critical to understand the threat in order to mitigate the risk.

The Powdersafe system is designed to deal with any suspicious mail believed to contain a contaminant.  As a result, the suspicious mail is safely controlled from point of discovery through to the final analysis of the powder.


The Powdersafe system is characterised by the following three steps:


  1. An Isolation Chamber

The system comprises an isolation chamber which allows the user to examine the contents of an envelope in a gas-tight, easy-to-use environment.  The isolation chamber does not require power, artificial lighting or special transportation requirements.  The isolation chamber has two ports, so that the user can sample the contents without having to open the main seal.

  1. A Transport Case

The isolation chamber fits into a wheeled transport case which provides three seals of containment between the unknown contaminant and the outside environment.

  1. Servicing

Once the isolation chamber has been delivered to the Powdersafe laboratory, the suspicious contaminant is examined and the results passed on to the Client.  Powdersafe is used by the Australian government as well as emergency responders and corporate mail rooms worldwide.

  1. Safe Mail training

The best way to avoid any real or potential threat coming from mails is to train personnel. Using the Powdersafe system as a complete technique to dealing with your suspicious mail, you not only protect the health and safety of people processing your mail, but you also protect your emergency responders.