Irradiated Mail

In response to the mailings of the bioterror agent Bacillus anthracis , the U.S. Postal Service has begun systematic sterilization of mail destined for federal government offices in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. The mail is sterilized using irradiation by electron beam, a method widely used to treat food and medical devices. The USPS is considering expanding sterilization procedures to include all non-commercial mail. The USPS predicts that this may cost up to $2.25 billion and could start as early as FY2005. This report examines some of the issues surrounding benefits and problems with mail sterilization in general and with irradiation in particular. In addition to large capital and operating costs, this procedure can damage some mail. There is also concern regarding people who have handled irradiated mail reporting skin rashes, headaches, breathing problems, vomiting and bleeding. The USPS is working with Congress and experts from the public and private sector to determine if the irradiated mail is the source of these problems. This group is also working to change mail processing procedures to minimize any potential problems caused by irradiation. Clearly, potential health effects will be addressed before irradiating a larger portion of the mail. This report will be updated as events warrant.