BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION
The invention relates to the general field of collecting, processing, and delivering mail. More specifically, it relates to mail-processing equipment operated by postal facilities for the collection, sorting, and distribution of mail. Yet more particularly, it relates to apparatus for and a method of reducing or eliminating biological safety hazards for mail recipients and employees of postal services.
The use of specialized, automatic equipment for processing high volumes of mail is well established in the field of mail handling and processing. This equipment generally includes equipment for collecting, sorting, and bundling mail. In addition to the automated, equipment-driven processing of mail, manual activities, most notably the actual collection and delivery of mail by postal service employees, are also involved.
Typical for a postal service, be it a national postal service with some government oversight, such as the United States Postal Service, or a privately owned and operated postal service, such as FedEx or UPS, are the ubiquitous mail collection receptacles, also referred to as “mail-drop boxes,” that are placed in readily accessible locations in towns, cities, airports, and trains stations throughout the nation. The very nature of a postal service makes it an effective delivery vehicle for an unauthorized dissemination of substances—it collects mail deposited anonymously in mail-collection receptacles, processes the mail in large mail-processing centers together with mail from hundreds of other mail-collection receptacles, and distributes the mail to locations across the country. A harmful substance can pass from a single piece of contaminated mail to many other pieces of mail with which it comes into contact during collection and processing for delivery. The substance can then be passed to persons coming into direct contact with a piece of contaminated mail or by inhaling the substance that has become airborne during processing.
The use of a postal service for the criminal dissemination of a harmful substance, such as, for example, anthrax spores, has many frightening aspects. From the perspective of a person intending to inflict harm randomly on a population, the anonymity of dropping mail in a mail drop box and the mixing of the dropped mail with mail from many other sources during processing are both desirable features, because the anonymity makes it difficult to track the perpetrator and the appearance of serious, if not fatal, infectious diseases in seemingly random geographic locations incites terror in a much broader population than is directly injured by the harmful substance. By way of illustration, at least one piece of mail containing anthrax spores was mailed with the U.S. Postal Service in the year 2001 and, as a result of inhaling spores or by direct contamination from handling the mail, several postal service employees and recipients of contaminated mail became ill and/or died.
This recent situation involving anthrax and the generally recognized threat of the dissemination of infectious biological substances via a service that collects articles from and distributes them throughout the general population underscore the need to implement safety measures that will protect both employees of such services and recipients alike from harm as a result of handling and processing articles contaminated with hazardous materials and/or infectious biological substances. Such services are not limited to mail deposit and collection services, but also include banking services, particularly those provided via Automated Teller Machines (ATMs), and myriad other automated services, including stamp vending machines, check-cashing machines, concert ticket vending machines, utility payment machines, and so forth.
For purposes of illustration only, the invention of the present application will use a typical postal service as the vehicle for describing the invention. It should be understood, however, that the apparatus and the method of the invention are applicable to many different types of automated or semi-automated processing of articles, such as letters, checks, parcels, and various other goods, and that the terms “postal service”, “mail”, “postal service employees” and “mail recipients” also apply respectively to the many different types of article-processing, the articles and goods processed by these services, the employees who provide and the recipients who receive the services.
The use of specialized, automatic equipment for processing high volumes of mail is well known in the field of mail handling and processing. The equipment has been limited to the functions of collecting, sorting and bundling mail for distribution. What has not been addressed in the prior art is the matter of ensuring the safety of postal service employees and mail recipients with regard to contamination by infectious and otherwise harmful biological substances transmitted via the mail. The prior art also fails to provide a means for reliably tracing a piece of mail deposited in a mail-drop box back to its point of origin. Such a means that ensures that mail cannot be deposited in an anonymous manner would be of great use in apprehending persons who deposit illegal or dangerous materials with the postal service, as well as act as a deterrence for persons contemplating depositing such materials with the postal service.
What is needed, therefore, is a method of protecting postal service employees and mail recipients from harm resulting from infectious and/or harmful biological substances entrained on or enclosed in pieces of mail. What is further needed is apparatus that detects such substances. What is yet further needed is such apparatus that renders such substances harmless. What is still yet further needed is such apparatus that provides information as to the point of origin of a piece of mail and the identity of the person who deposited the piece of mail.
SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
It is an object of the present invention to provide a method and apparatus that protect postal service employees and mail recipients from harmful materials such as infectious biological substances that may be entrained or enclosed on a piece of mail. It is a further object to provide such a method and apparatus for the neutralization of such infectious biological substances and harmful materials. Still another object is to provide such a method and apparatus for tracking the transit route of an individual piece of mail from its final destination back to its point of origin, and to provide information as to the identity of the person who deposited the piece of mail.
The objects of the invention are achieved by providing method and apparatus that neutralize infectious substances and harmful biological materials that are contained in or on pieces of mail, provide tracking information on the transit route of the piece of mail from its destination back to its point of origin, and provide identity information on the person who deposited the mail into a mail-collection receptacle.
The method of the present invention encompasses steps that regulate the collection, sorting, and delivery processes, the combination of which ensures maximum protection of the service employees and the recipients of mail or other goods delivered by the service. Each of the phases relates to one stage of the processing and handling. For example, the first phase relates to collection receptacles, specifically, in this illustration, mail-collection receptacles where letters are typically introduced into the postal system, although it should be understood that the collection receptacle can just as well be an ATM or a vending machine, and the “mail” deposited with the collection receptacle is a deposit envelope or paper currency. At this first stage, it is of primary importance to render harmless any infectious or otherwise harmful biological substances that may be introduced with a piece of mail into the postal service. To this end, one or more neutralizing agents are provided in the mail-collection receptacle that create an environment within the mail-collection receptacle that is adverse to the survival of most biological pathogens. Such neutralizing agents include ultra-violet light, ultrasonic pulses, chemical disinfectants such as a disinfectant adhesive patch or strip and/or a bactericidal mist, and/or heat.
The apparatus according to the present invention is equipped with neutralizing agents that include one or more of the following: ultra-violet light emitters, ultrasonic pulse emitters, bactericidal chemical dispensers, heaters, or any combination thereof. The neutralizing agents are installed in the mail-collection receptacle and maintain an atmosphere within the mail-collection receptacle that is adverse to the survival of any infectious or harmful biological substances. The chemical dispensers include the use of foggers or misters, and patches. The use of disinfectant patches is particularly practical when used together with a liner bag that lines the mail-collection receptacle and is removed along with the mail contents when the mail is collected. The patch is attached to the inside of the bag and acts on the contents of the mail-collection receptacle until the mail is removed from the bag. Ideally, the entire liner bag, along with disinfectant patch and mail contents, is removed at the time of collection. The mail deposited in the bag remains there until it is transferred to the sorting facility. The use of disinfectant patches does not require the use of a liner bag; the patches can, instead, be attached to an inside wall of the mail-collection receptacle and replaced at regular intervals.
The neutralizing agents provided according to the present invention act on infectious or hazardous biological substances which may adhere to the external surfaces of or be contained within an envelope, as the piece of mail is introduced into the mail-collection receptacle, whereupon the infectious or hazardous biological material is destroyed or otherwise neutralized. Alternatively, a neutralization chamber is provided that is separate from the mail-collection receptacle, and the mail deposited in a given mail-collection receptacle is transferred to the neutralization chamber and treated with one-or more neutralizing agents. The use of a separate neutralization chamber is particularly cost effective when the neutralizing agent is heat in an inert atmosphere, whereby the atmosphere is heated to a temperature sufficiently high to denature any pathogens that are present in the mail.
At this first stage of mail processing, it is also important to obtain information about the person depositing the piece of mail and about the piece of mail itself. According to the method and apparatus of the invention, the face of each piece of mail is scanned as it is deposited into the mail-collection receptacle and the scanned information is stored in a data storage device for retrieval at a later time. Upon introduction of a piece of mail to the mail-collection receptacle, a digital camera records a digital image of the face of the piece of mail, and imprints this image with a code identifying the time of deposit and the exact location of the mail-collection receptacle. The image data is stored in a conventional digital memory storage device that is either installed in or on the mail-collection receptacle or is installed at a remote location that is linked to the mail-collection receptacle by some conventional mode of telecommunications, such as a satellite uplink/downlink, cable transmission, or radio transmission. The image data is identified as pertaining to a particular mail-collection batch by any number of methods. For example, when the mail is collected a postal service employee may retrieve the stored data and transfer or copy it onto a data storage medium that travels with the mail-collection batch, or the employee may enter an identifying code that links the stored image data with the particular mail-collection batch. Thus, if a suspicious piece of mail is discovered later in a particular batch of mail, the appearance of the piece of mail can be compared to the stored image data for the respective batch of collected mail to verify the location of origin of the piece of mail.
Alternatively, the deposit slots of the mail-collection receptacles are equipped with a conventional time/date stamp and each piece of mail is stamped as it enters the mail-collection receptacle with time of deposit and location of mail-collection receptacle, just as deposit envelopes are now stamped at bank automatic teller machines (ATMs). In this way, time and location of deposit is easily ascertainable from a suspicious piece of mail found in the mail-collection receptacle.
The apparatus according to the invention also includes one or more conventional biometric identification devices, such as a palm, thumbprint, or fingerprint reader, a facial scanner, a retinal image scanner, a digital camera, etc. For example, the person depositing a piece of mail, hereinafter referred to as the “depositor”, provides the biometric data by pressing a fingerprint scan button or looking into a retinal scanner. Once the biometric data is recorded, the deposit slot on the mail-collection receptacle opens to accept the piece of mail. The biometric data thus scanned from the depositor is then either imprinted on the recorded image of the piece of mail, or recorded on a separate medium, but linked to the particular piece of mail by the time and location information.
The biometric identification as described above is a passive form of identification that requires some effort at a later time to match biometric data taken from a suspect with the biometric data recorded and stored by the postal security system. This type of identification may be considered adequate for many different applications of the method of the present invention. In a more sensitive application that requires a more sophisticated means of identification, the apparatus according to the present invention is equipped with an identification (ID) card scanner that records personal identification of the depositor, such as name, address, social security number, and perhaps some biometric data that is immediately verifiable against data stored in a central databank, such as a DNA sequence. Electronically scannable ID cards and the scanners for such cards are known. U.S. provisional patent application No. 60/344,833, filed on Nov. 7, 2001, and utility patent application Ser. No. 10/198,342, filed on Jul. 18, 2002, both commonly owned by the inventor of the present invention and herein incorporated by reference, disclose an ID card that is very suitable for use with the apparatus according to the present invention. The apparatus according to the present invention provides a card swipe slot and a reader for reading the identification data on the ID card. The identification information is either stamped on the digitally recorded image of the piece of mail and/or stored in a data storage device with the time and location information that corresponds to that of the deposit of the piece of mail.
The second phase of the present invention relates to the stage of processing that includes the handling of the mail by postal service employees when collecting mail from the mail-collection receptacle and transferring it to sorting facilities. The method according to the present invention requires the use of safety equipment by the postal service employees while performing such tasks during this second phase. Specifically, the safety equipment includes a glove worn by the postal service employee, which contains a plurality of ultraviolet light emitters for the purpose of illuminating any surface with which the glove comes into contact. Ultra-violet light is a well established means for neutralizing certain harmful biological substances, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, mold, etc. Thus, if the postal service employee should pick up a piece of mail that bears a harmful biological substance that was not neutralized in phase one of the present invention, the ultra-violet light emitted by the glove renders the substance harmless. As an additional measure, when handling mail according to the method of the present invention, the postal service employee wears an air-filtration mask. It is within the scope of this invention to equip the mask with ultra-violet light emitters in a manner similar to the above-described glove. The filtration mask serves the two-fold purpose during the mail collection process of preventing inhalation by the postal service employee of infectious and/or harmful biological substances emanating from pieces of mail, and of neutralizing the airborne substances by means of ultra-violet light.
Phase three of the present invention relates to the stage of mail processing in which mail is sorted and bundled at a postal facility. The machinery used for sorting and bundling is equipped with apparatus that renders harmless most known harmful biological substances, such as, bacteria, viruses, mold, and fungi. Such apparatus includes heaters and ultra-violet lights. The sorting and bundling machinery typically has metal tracks through which the mail passes. According to the present invention, the tracks are heated to a temperature adverse to the survival of most biological substances. Additionally, the mail is irradiated with ultra-violet light as it is processed, to render harmless any airborne substances, thereby further ensuring the health safety of the person or persons overseeing the sorting and bundling process. The ultra-violet light fixtures are mounted on or near the sorting and bundling equipment and irradiate an area surrounding the equipment.
It is further within the scope of the invention to apply bactericidal chemicals to pieces of mail to further ensure elimination of harmful substances. For example, known bactericidal chemicals or solvents can be sprayed into the air surrounding the sorting and bundling equipment, or directly onto the pieces of mail during the sorting and bundling processing.
Phase three of the method of the present invention also implements apparatus emitting “black light” (that is, near ultraviolet) illumination. Such black light illumination is well established in the prior art as a means for making visible certain substances that would not be visible to the naked eye under wavelengths of light emitted by ordinary incandescent or fluorescent light sources. In the present invention, this black light apparatus will permit postal service employees to detect the presence of certain powdered substances on the outer surfaces of pieces of mail going through the sorting machinery. Any piece of mail displaying a suspicious powdered substance on the envelope or spilling from the envelope could then be quickly removed from the processing machinery and isolated for decontamination or further inspection.
Integral to the implementation of the present invention at each of its three phases is the use of an envelope specially constructed for ensuring the safety of persons handling pieces of contaminated mail. The envelope construction embodies several features that facilitate the neutralization of harmful substances contained therein and permits the envelope to be tracked by electronic means from its point of purchase to its final destination. The envelope comprises a paper portion that it is perforated with a plurality of holes. These holes permit the introduction of ultraviolet light, bactericidal chemicals, or other infectious substance-neutralizing agents to the inside of the envelope. In order to prevent the egression of material, including infectious powdered substances, from the envelope during mail processing, each of the holes is spanned with an elasticized film, such as polyethylene, that permits the passage of UV-light. As an alternative or additional mechanism, the film is constructed of ultra-small-hole filtering material, such as a MILLIPOREŽ filter, that blocks all substances greater than one micron in size. This then would allow bactericidal vapors to be forced into the envelopes, once the envelopes are properly deployed, yet prevent most substances from passing through the filter from inside the envelope to the outside.
A further feature of the method according to the present invention is to require the use of specific types of envelopes that aid in localizing possible pathogens. Such envelopes contain a metallic coating, such as aluminum. The coating has a tendency to develop a static electric charge, which charge in turn causes spores and powdered substances to cling to the metallic surface, thus retarding free movement of such spores and powdered substances through the air, even if the envelope should be ruptured.
Also included in the envelope is an ELISA assay pad that will indicate the presence of one or more specific types of bacteria, typically by coloration of an indicator strip. The ELISA assay is well-known in the bio-technology field and is not described here in any detail.
In addition, the method according to the present invention includes providing in some form on the envelope a means for identifying the origin of the envelope. A key feature of the identification means is a tamper-proof integration of such a means into the construction of the envelope. Such identification means include simple code devices as bar codes or color codes, or technically sophisticated devices, such as a data chip. The data chip has the ability to retain data pertaining to the place of purchase of the envelope, as well as to record data indicating the location through which the envelope passes at each stage of processing. The data stored in this device can be easily read by use of a hand-held scanning device. Thus, every envelope would immediately yield information about its history, and any envelope suspected of having contained an infectious or harmful biological substance can be quickly traced back to its sender.
The apparatus according to the present invention is assemblable or installable on a variety of mail collection receptacles and equipment. Because of cost considerations for upgrading or replacing conventional mail-collection receptacles with sophisticated mail-collection receptacles equipped with the apparatus according to the present invention, other devices may be incorporated into the mail-collection receptacle, as a means of taking advantage of the security apparatus and providing a comprehensive communications unit. For example, an alternative embodiment of the mail-collection receptacle according to the present invention is also equipped with telecommunications devices, thereby providing a comprehensive communications apparatus having the added capability of processing money orders, dispensing postage stamps, providing access to Internet and Ethernet, and providing teleconferencing capability.