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Sterilizing the Mail

December 3, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY KAYE: In mid-October, as hazardous material specialists scoured Capitol Hill mailrooms for traces of anthrax, postal service officials launched an ambitious effort to sterilize the nation’s mail. They signed contracts worth $45 million for irradiation devices, the kinds of systems that use x- rays and electron beams to eliminate harmful bacteria in food and to sterilize medical equipment. Eight of the nine systems to be used to sanitize mail are being provided by the Titan Corporation, based in San Diego, California. Gene Ray is Titan President and CEO.

GENE RAY, Titan Corporation: This takes regular electricity… As you know, electricity is the flow of electrons. We take those electrons; we run them through what’s called a linear accelerator. The accelerator accelerates electrons to high speeds. The electrons come out as a beam of energy. That beam of energy then penetrates a package, killing the bacteria that’s inside the package.

JEFFREY KAYE: Thomas Day, vice president of engineering for the postal service, says the priority is to irradiate East Coast mail that may have been cross-contaminated.

THOMAS DAY, U.S. Postal Service: Longer term, we get into the issue of sanitizing mail in general. In a shorter term, our priority is to do the volume of mail that the law enforcement people think is most at threat.

JEFFREY KAYE: So far, only two of the nine irradiators bought by the post office are up and running– one at this plant in Lima, Ohio; another in New Jersey. Irradiated mail, most destined for government offices in Washington, D.C., represents a tiny fraction of the more-than 200 billion pieces of mail postal workers deliver each year. To address the threat of bioterrorism, the Post Office is considering a multibillion- dollar overhaul of its distribution system, from the collection boxes on the street to sophisticated sorting equipment. But there are major questions about how safe the mail can be, given the costs and limits of technology, and the desire of customers to send what they want by mail, without harm.

THOMAS DAY: The true long-term is, how do you build a system that, nationwide, you can sanitize mail to make all of our employees and the public in general safe from the threat of anthrax?

JEFFREY KAYE: Killing anthrax by irradiation has proved much more complex than zapping foodstuffs, a more common use. After authorities ran tests on packages containing anthrax-like spores, a New Jersey official described some of the challenges in a memo. “After much discussion about the penetration of the electron beam,” she wrote, “it was determined that the package would have to be turned over and run through irradiator a second time. The problem is that the spores in the envelopes would presumably fall to the bottom by gravity, thus avoiding the beam for both passes.” Scientists also had to account for the possible presence of dense material in the mail that might deflect the beams. To ensure any anthrax is killed, authorities are using massive doses of radiation– more than 50 times the levels used on fruits; a thousand times more than cancer treatments. But one problem is that irradiation also damages or destroys innocuous items. Edgar Bailey, in charge of radiation protection for the State of California, cites a long list of items susceptible to radiation damage.

EDGAR BAILEY, Department of Health, State of California: There are questions about the radiochemical breakdown of such things as pharmaceuticals, lab specimens being sent through the mails, all of those kinds of things. The other things that could be damaged are a variety of plastics, such things as computer disks, and they would possibly be damaged by these high doses.

JEFFREY KAYE: Bailey says the flavors of food sent by mail could change if irradiated. Certain electronics and magnetic tapes would be damaged, plastics and glass discolored. Mail order seeds would be destroyed by irradiation. And film processors say their customers wouldn’t be able to mail in rolls for developing, since irradiation blackens film. The Postal Service is planning to let customers know if their mail has been irradiated.

THOMAS DAY: The introduction of biohazards to the mail is…

JEFFREY KAYE: Thomas Day says he is sympathetic to firms that rely on the mail.

THOMAS DAY: So what we’re doing in discussions with those industry trade groups is to talk about ways to strengthen the process by which we accept that mail, so we know that it’s clearly from a known mailer, we know what’s in it, we know where it’s going to, we know where it came from.

JEFFREY KAYE: Day says companies that mail out products susceptible to damage might register at post offices to prevent the products they ship from being irradiated. But segregating mail sent by the general public poses a logistical problem, a major loophole if terrorists know certain mail won’t be sanitized.

THOMAS DAY: We’re still trying to work through that. I think the reality is there are certain products where there will be impacts, and we’re trying to figure out and putting the best minds together to see how we minimize those impacts.

JEFFREY KAYE: Beyond irradiation, the Post Office plans to reengineer its millions of mail boxes. Instead of mail dropping into plastic tubs, it would fall into a lining inside of the mailbox.

THOMAS DAY: It would protect the employees so they would not have direct contact with the mail as they collect it. And then as you close that bag off, you would seal it up so that the first point that it would be opened would be at our distribution centers where we would have detection devices, as well as ultimately we may have sanitation devices.

JEFFREY KAYE: Day wants detection systems in distribution centers nationwide as a first line of defense against anthrax-tainted mail, but experts say it’s not that easy to detect small amounts of anthrax. James Greenwood, director of the Office of Health and Safety at the University of California at Los Angeles, recently helped direct a drill on biohazards. He says there’s no current technology that will detect anthrax inside envelopes.

JAMES GREENWOOD, UCLA: The most accurate method continues to be a culture of the microorganism. And what you would do is take material into a laboratory, place it into culture, grow the organism, and then use a variety of methods to confirm its identity. And that process usually takes 24 to 48 hours.

JEFFREY KAYE: While the Post Office plans for the future, government and corporate mailrooms around the country are gingerly handling mail. Postal officials hope to spend as much as $4 billion on extra security, and say they are exploring technologies such as radioactive devices and gas to sterilize mail. But they warn there is no way of assuring 100% safety of all the mail sent through the Postal Service.