Post Office Seeks to Ease Concerns
RANDOLPH E. SCHMID
Jan. 30, 2002
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Postal Service sought to reassure the public _ and mailroom workers _ that irradiated mail is not dangerous.
``We have had the mail tested by a number of agencies and they have determined that there is not a level of carbon monoxide or any other toxic substances that should cause anyone to become ill,'' postal executive Deborah K. Wilhite said Wednesday.
In an effort to negate any future anthrax attack, the post office is radiating mail addressed to Washington ZIP codes where federal agencies are located. It is treating about 350,000 items a day addressed to ZIP codes 20200 through 20599.
There have complaints of fumes, and people have reported feeling ill after opening the radiated mail, and experiencing skin reactions.
``We understand very, very clearly this has been a tense and worrisome time,'' Wilhite said.
Wilhite said she could not speculate on what has been causing the reported illnesses.
The process of irradiating mail does cause it to become drier than normal and that means people handling the mail will encounter more dust and will have drier skin on their hands, she said.
Thomas G. Day, postal vice president for engineering, said the radiation process causes the mail to release carbon monoxide and ozone, and also leads to the release of some volatile compounds from the plastic bags that hold the mail.
Irradiated mail is held in a venting area for at least 24 hours to allow these gases to escape, Day said. It is only delivered when any traces of gas are below levels considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
When the system was first begun, some postal workers began suffering headaches when handling radiated mail, Day said. That was solved by adding ventilating hoods that draw the gases away from the workers into filters.
The radiation process was started after contaminated letters were received at the offices of Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in the fall.
Five people, including two Washington postal workers, have died of anthrax since contaminated letters were mailed from New Jersey in September and October. More than a dozen people were infected in New York, New Jersey, Florida and Washington.
Day said that in addition to radiating the Washington mail, the agency is working on technology that can be used across the country to either sanitize the mail or quickly detect the presence of dangerous materials.
He said the post office finally has eliminated its backlog of letters to be treated and is now moving mail through its radiation system on a steady basis _ though that does still result in a delay of about 72 hours in delivery. There is still a backlog of packages, he said.
The exposure to powerful electron beams kills anthrax but can also discolor paper and make it brittle and can distort plastic. Wilhite said the post office will work with museum officials and others concerned about preventing damage to valuable items.
Under the current system mail addressed to the federal ZIP codes is collected at a facility in Landover, Md., and then taken to Washington's Brentwood facility for shipment.
The Brentwood building is closed because of anthrax contamination inside, but mail is being handled under tents in the parking lot.
The mail to be treated is shipped to facilities in Lima, Ohio, or Bridgeport, N.J., where it is exposed to the radiation.