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.