Postal Service tries to allay irradiation fears

With mail delivery getting back to normal in Washington D.C., the Postal Service is trying to ease concerns that the very technology used to protect workers from bioterrorism may actually be causing them harm. "We understand that this has been a tense and worrisome time," Deborah Willhite, senior vice president for government relations and public policy at the Postal Service, said at a Jan. 30 press briefing. "People are on edge and that is justified. But we want to make sure that the mail is one less worry." Since October, when an anthrax-tainted letter made its way to Sen. Tom Daschle's, D-S.D., office, the Postal Service has been irradiating mail addressed to Washington-area federal offices. Mail for all three Washington branches is affected. Each day, between 300,000 and 350,000 pieces of mail are trucked from Landover, Md., to private facilities in Lima, Ohio, and Bridgeport, N.J., and exposed to high doses of electron beams. The same technology is used on food and medical devices, but at much lower doses. Newspaper reports in recent days have cited anecdotal accounts of Capitol Hill and agency workers suffering from nausea, rashes and headaches after handling mail coming back from Ohio and New Jersey. "It's been an issue for some of our folks at the Office of Personnel Management," said Milly Rodriguez, health and safety specialist at the American Federation of Government Employees. "Our local there had some complaints. OPM responded well and met with the local and had the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) do some air sampling and employee surveys. At this point, there is nothing to draw a direct correlation to the irradiated mail." That is exactly the message coming from Postal Service officials-the levels of gases coming off irradiated mail are below those deemed hazardous by NIOSH, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Willhite suggested there are other environmental factors contributing to the symptoms federal workers are exhibiting. For instance, there is more paper dust coming off the mail, largely because of a heavy backlog, and mail may become dry and flaky. Additionally, the agency packages mail returning from Ohio and New Jersey with odor-eaters to try and take away the smell caused by irradiation. "We are looking at bringing the levels (of irradiation) down," said Thomas Day, vice president of engineering at the Postal Service, adding that the dosage still has be high enough to kill anthrax spores or other biohazards. Rodriguez suggested that agencies and workers keep a log of when they develop symptoms. That will help determine how big a risk the mail presents.
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