Commerce employee ill from irradiated mail

A Commerce Department employee became ill Thursday after inhaling toxic fumes from irradiated mail, according to a spokesman for the Washington, D.C. fire and emergency medical services agency. A 42-year-old woman working in Commerce's mailroom experienced nausea, difficulty breathing and a burning in her eyes when she opened a ream of copy paper covered in plastic wrap that had been screened for the anthrax bacteria, according to Alan Etter, spokesman for Washington's fire and EMS department. The woman, who was taken to an area hospital, told paramedics that she suspected her symptoms resulted from opening a box of copy paper covered in plastic wrap that had been irradiated along with other mail sitting in an office bin, Etter said. Investigators suspected that the heat from the irradiation process reacted with the plastic wrap, trapping noxious vapors in the package that were released when the woman opened it. The FBI and a hazardous materials crew determined that the incident did not pose a credible threat to public safety, Etter said. Ten other people approached paramedics complaining of symptoms, but refused treatment or transportation to the hospital, Etter said. "Since there was no biological hazard present, we could not force people to seek medical treatment." Etter said the 42-year-old woman was the only person he saw who was visibly ill. "She was throwing up, and her eyes were bloodshot and watery." There have been five or six similar incidents involving toxic emissions from irradiated materials in the past few months, Etter said. Until the Commerce Department incident Thursday, he had not been aware of anyone needing to go to the hospital for treatment in such cases. "It is a severe irritant, but it is not life-threatening in small doses," Etter said. In response to the recent bioterrorist incidents involving anthrax, the Postal Service has been irradiating federal agencies' mail and some "high-profile" mail that law enforcement has identified as potentially at risk for contamination, according to Bob Anderson, a Postal Service spokesman. Irradiation devices emit highly energized beams of atomic particles, often in the form of x-rays and gamma rays, disrupting the chemical structure of an organism and killing its cells. Anderson could not comment on whether federal agencies were aware of any potential health risks associated with the irradiation process.
Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.