A couple of my friends are seriously talking about wearing latex gloves when they handle their mail at home. I feel silly telling them that they shouldn’t do that – everyone’s scared, the FBI’s apparent failure to make any progress tracking down the culprits is frustrating, nothing they tell us seems very sincere or comforting. You do what you can.
My reasoning, though, goes something like this: everything I’m hearing from the CDC and the press, and everything I’ve managed to infer from the points where the CDC and the press are obviously wrong and/or hedging their bets, suggests to me that wearing gloves to touch my mail would be a thoroughly empty gesture.
If you accept that:
1) spores can infect a random piece of mail through incidental contact with another incidentally infected object, and that
2) those spores could conceivably infect you by the time they get to you,
then it must be obvious that latex gloves aren’t going to do you a lick of good.
First, there is the obvious point that you could just as easily inhale the spores as get them on your skin. So make sure you buy a face mask while you’re at the drugstore.
But it’s more than that, really. Let’s say I start wearing gloves to handle the mail that gets dropped in the mailbox every day. If I am seriously concerned about the spores that could conceivably be stuck to the mail, it would be idiotic for us to not also be concerned about the spores that could conceivably be stuck to the mailbox itself; and any area around it, including my door and entryway. There’s no necessary limit to the number of incidental contact-based infections that could occur before the chance of transmission becomes nil; you’ve already accepted that an arbitrary number got the spores as far as your doorstep, so it would be foolish not to assume that an arbitrary number more could still occur.
If there could be spores in your mail, and if incidental contact is a reliable vector, then there could be spores already anywhere in your house. There could be spores in your kitchen. There could be spores on your clothes. There could be spores on my clothes when I come to visit you. There could very well be spores in the mailroom at work, which means there could be spores on the elevator button that the mail guy pushes when he comes to deliver the mail. There could be spores on the snack machine downstairs, which people touch after using the elevator. There could be spores on the lobby phone. There could be spores on the water fountain just down the hall from my office.
And although it sounds like I’m heading towards a reductio ad absurdum argument, I’m really not. When I say there could be, I mean yeah, there really could be. If I dwell on it, it becomes a very frightening thought.
But that also means that I can’t take any comfort in wearing latex gloves. I could put a sealed plastic bag around the mail slot, wear a face mask to work, spray down my desk every morning with bleach, and it still wouldn’t make a substantial difference. I can’t arbitrarily pick a level of paranoia short of sealing myself in a hermetic bubble, and say, “Okay, THIS eases my anxiety enough to make the false sense of security worth it.”
Instead, what I’m going to do is keep reminding myself that millions of parcels have gone through contaminated postal facilities every day for an entire month… and so far only 15 people have been infected. The chances of infection from an incidentally contaminated piece of mail are infinitesimal. No matter how cynical you are about the CDC, the facts continue to bear this out. People aren’t getting anthrax because they’re failing to take some precautionary measure that the government won’t tell us about. They’re getting anthrax because anthrax is hard to track, it gets everywhere, it slips through the cracks. You can’t ward it off with rubber gloves.
But two people who caught it while working in rooms directly adjacent to mail-handling centers does not a rampaging contact-spread contagion make.
It doesn’t mean I’m not scared. The fact that I’m writing something like this at all makes me very sad.
But I’m not going to start walling myself in. I won’t do it. It won’t help.
That’s really the last I’ll have to say on the matter.