Mail irradiation

I know some of our members have questions about mail irradiation and our practice of mailing each other seeds and plants. This week’s issue of Science had an interesting article (actually a policy news report):

“Is Safe Mail Worth the Price?” H. Keith Florig, Science, vol. 295, Feb. 22, 2002, pp. 1467-68.

I’m going to quote him directly: “Unfortunately, at the tens of kiloGray doses needed to assure anthrax decontamination, ionizing radiation causes damage to many materials. Such doses alter medicines and medical specimens, sterilize seeds, expose or cloud film, discolor lenses and glass fiber, fry microelectronics, embrittle paper, add unnatural tastes to foods, and change the properties of some plastics.” He goes on to say that the early irradiation attempts last fall led to the release of so much ozone and other plastic breakdown products, that ventilation had to be increased to avoid making the workers at the irradiation machines sick. Once these gasses dissipate, the mail is completely safe (I assume this doesn’t apply to taking mailed medicine). I think it is clear that irradiation will kill any living thing, dormant or not, that is exposed.

Now the good (?) news: He says that irradiation has so far been applied to only select government agencies in Washington, D. C., and that the agencies involved have been warned about the possible effects. The post office has contracted the irradiation out, but is obtaining its own machines. They will still only be able to treat 0.5% of the mail. In other words, it’s safe to assume that our seeds aren’t being irradiated, and that we would be informed if they were.

Florig goes on to point out how expensive and destructive it would be to treat all of the mail, and discusses some of the complexities of the issue (private carriers like UPS, for example). He predicts that irradiation will not be greatly expanded unless there is a second biological attack through the mail, and recommends that the government discuss the subject with the public, to learn what we think about the costs and benefits, before any major expansion. The trouble is I’m not sure what we ought to do, to tell the truth. How do we balance so much destruction of property against an unpredictable threat to lives?

Currently, the U.S. post office is scanning only a small portion of the mail and only letters and flat envelopes. John Dunlap, Manager of Materials Handling and Deployment for the USPS Engineering Group, which oversees mail sanitization operations, told us that “Probably nothing will be done to packages that are sent registered or certified,since we now require information from the sender.” Other postal authorities have commented that the cost and time required to scan all mail would be prohibitive.

We also contacted the U.S. Customs Service, Brinks, Malca Amit, UPS, and FedEx to see if they were currently using sanitization procedures or had plans to do so. They all stated that no irradiation procedures were being used or were planned at this time. They all have imposed stricter limitations with letters, and some of the shippers are no longer transporting envelopes. Nevertheless, it is important and every effort should be made to ship such materials by methods that are not likely to be exposed to the sanitization process.

If you are concerned, ask your supplier to ship in a box, or use UPS or FedEx instead of the US mail service.