Indianapolis, Indiana USA
This came from the entomology list; I edited it down. It is a memo from
the Smithsonian Museum, to people who are shipping things to them and to Washington DC.
In a nutshell:
The USPS irradiated a lot of mail to/from DC because of anthrax. It's possible the post office might eventually do this to other mail in other
places. The irradiation destroys all kinds of materials (listed below). This may be important to know in future if you ship them. Read on only if you want details.
This memo is an advisory update on the current situation as we understand
it, based on technical information provided by the Smithsonian Center for
Materials Research and Education, as well as by the SI Office of Facilities
and Engineering and the U. S. Postal Service.....
I. Summary of current postal situation
Anthrax-bearing mail was first noted in the DC area in mid-October. The
Brentwood facility was closed and isolated, mail deliveries in the DC area
were curtailed; and mail then at Brentwood was seized and transported to
Ohio for sterilization by irradiation. Federal
agency mail arriving at Brentwood since that seizure has been isolated at
Brentwood. Since that time, four weeks ago, first-class mail delivery to
Federal agencies and offices has not resumed....
II. Irradiation and the USPS
The USPS sent the following memo:
Dear Government Mail Customer:
On Monday, November 19, the Washington, DC post office begins delivering
federal government mail that has been irradiated at a Lima, Ohio facility.
The irradiation process is safe, but can affect certain products sent
through the mail. Although it is unlikely that the treated mail now being
delivered contains any of the following products, if received, they should
be discarded and replacements obtained:
§ Any biological sample, blood, fecal, etc., could be rendered useless
§ Diagnostic kits, such as those used to monitor blood sugar levels, could
be adversely affected
§ Photographic film will be fully exposed
§ Food will be adversely affected
§ Drugs and medicines could have efficacy and safety affected
§ Eyeglasses and contact lenses could be adversely affected
§ Electronic devices would likely be rendered inoperable
Mail that has been
irradiated includes First-Class letters postmarked since October 12 and
addressed to Washington, DC government customers with ZIP Codes beginning
The irradiation process used at the Lima facility was tested and found to be
effective by an interagency team of scientific experts that recommended
release of the mail for delivery. The group was organized by the White
House Office of Science and Technology Policy and included the Armed Forces
Radiobiology Research Institute, the Food and Drug Administration, the
Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Standards and
original signed by:
Thomas G. Day
Vice President, Engineering
United States Postal Service
If you have not yet seen the analysis of irradiation issues and concerns
prepared by SCMRE, you can get a copy online at
In brief, SCMRE identifies the following risks posed by irradiation of
organic and inorganic materials at the dosages suggested by the USPS:
Living specimens (including seeds and gametes) will be killed.
Cellulosic materials will be seriously affected, with the risk of
embrittlement, discoloration and oxidation. This affects paper (including
labels) and other plant-based materials as well as botanical specimens.
Proteinaceous materials may be affected in similar ways, though perhaps not
to the same extent. This affects anything made from or containing skin,
chitin, feathers, hair or fur, or comparable products.
DNA is particularly at risk. Materials sent out for genetic analysis will be
severely compromised, with the risk of both recombination and outright
Discoloration and fading will occur in a wide range of materials, from
textiles to specimens to photographs.
Glass and mineral specimens may also be discolored.
Containers themselves may be adversely affected. Rubber and plastic seals
and stoppers may become embrittled.
Magnetic media will probably lose significant information contact, and
undeveloped photographic film will be exposed.
Some heating of materials may result, which can cause problems with
preservative solutions and with adhesives.
Mitigation through shielding in the mail enclosure itself is not practical.
There is no apparent risk to the recipient from residual radiation.
The principal risks are to the integrity and stability of the materials
being shipped and irradiated.
The units being purchased by the USPS for irradiation of mail are linear
electron accelerators, used industrially for sterilization of food. USPS has
a short statement at http://www.kodak.com/US/en/corp/about
Kodak/sanitize.shtml. The first of these units will be installed in the DC
area, most likely at Brentwood, as early as next month We are certain that
all incoming mail will be irradiated, but are not sure if outgoing mail will
also be treated. At the moment, the plan is to irradiate flat mail (e.g.
letters), not packages. That obviously could change in response to a threat
or incident. A package irradiated on two sides would receive, logically, a
Note that this problem is currently unique to the DC area but will
in all likelihood become national as the planned 8-20 irradiation units are
installed at key centers nationwide.
Currently, Federal Express does not have plans for irradiation or any other
We will continue to keep you posted as we get updated information from the
Sally Y. Shelton
National Museum of Natural History
Washington, DC 20560-0107
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