CDC advice: Be alert when opening mail

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta offered the following advice on handling mail:

While it is not possible to eliminate the risk of anthrax, the risk to the general public is low and can be further reduced by being alert for suspicious packages and by hand washing after opening the mail. Heightened public health surveillance continues and has been intensified so that anthrax promptly can be recognized and treated. While the risk is considered to be low to individuals from possible contamination in the mail, people should continue to watch for suspicious mail. If a package or envelope appears suspicious, do not open it.

Suspicious packages and envelopes could include some of the following characteristics:

  • Inappropriate or unusual labeling
  • Handwritten or poorly typed addresses
  • Excessive postage
  • Misspellings of common words
  • Strange return address or no return address
  • Incorrect titles or title without a name
  • Not addressed to a specific person
  • Marked with restrictions, such as "Personal," "Confidential," or "Do Not X-ray"
  • Marked with any threatening language
  • Postmarked from a city or state that does not match the return address


  • Powdery substance felt through or appearing on the package or envelope
  • Oily stains, discolorations, or odor
  • Lopsided or uneven envelope
  • Excessive packaging material such as masking tape, string, etc.
  • Other suspicious signs:
    • Excessive weight
    • Ticking sound
    • Protruding wires or aluminum foil

Dos and Don’ts for suspicious letters


  • Shake or empty the contents.
  • Carry the package or envelope, show it to others, or allow others to examine it.


  • Put the package or envelope on a stable surface; do not sniff, touch, taste, or look closely at it or any contents that may have spilled.
  • Alert others in the area about the suspicious package or envelope. Leave the area, close any doors, and take actions to prevent others from entering the area. If possible, shut off the ventilation system.
  • Wash hands with soap and water to prevent spreading potentially infectious material to face or skin. Seek additional instructions for exposed or potentially exposed persons.
  • If at work, notify a supervisor, a security officer, or a law enforcement official. If at home, contact the local law enforcement agency.
  • If possible, create a list of people who were in the room or area when this suspicious letter or package was recognized and a list of persons who may have handled this package or letter. Give the list to both the local public health authorities and law enforcement officials.

Cutaneous anthrax is a boil-like skin lesion that eventually forms an ulcer with a black center or crust (similar in appearance to some spider bites). The cutaneous form of anthrax responds well to antibiotics if treatment is started soon after symptoms appear.

Individuals should, especially in areas that have been directly affected, review and be familiar with advice provided to all postal patrons by the U.S. Postal Service and follow that advice.