An X-Rayed X-mas: Should the USPS Irradiate Your Mail?

Imagine if the fruitcake Aunt Emma sends you every year is, in 2001, subjected not just to auntie's stove, but to an oven the size of a house that zaps the poor loaf at 25 kiloGrays, delivering the radioactive equivalent of 825 million chest X-rays to the X-mas cake. And you thought it tasted funky last year.

In response to the current anthrax-in-the-mail scare, the federal government has bought eight such irradiation devices, with an option for 12 more, for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). At $5 million per device, they are possibly the USPS's most expensive attempt to quiet public fears about bioterrorism. But will the devices actually make the public safer? Or will irradiating our letters, bills, catalogs, mail-order do-dads and holiday presents have unintended health and environmental consequences, either in the long or short term?

Unfortunately, the government isn't answering those question, or hardly any questions at all, about mail irradiation. Unable to get such information, consumer advocates and activists who cut their teeth struggling against irradiated foods have filed a number of public information requests. On Nov. 1, Public Citizen filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for copies of scientific studies used by the USPS to prove that irradiation technology kills anthrax spores. The Nuclear Information and Research Service (NIRS), also sent a formal letter to the USPS on Nov. 2, asking for full disclosure on mail irradiation.

Among their concerns, according to NIRS Project Coordinator Cindy Folkers, are what might happen if the irradiation process isn't fully effective. "If spores are not destroyed with irradiation, mutation is risked," their Nov. 2 letter pointed out. As Folkers asks, "Might you end up with something worse if you irradiate anthrax?"

In a testimony to Congress at the end of October, USPS Vice President Tom Day referred to an armed forces microbiology study to support his claim that this irradiation technology kills anthrax spores, according to Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's energy project, who was at the hearing. But Hauter said the study was neither peer-reviewed in the scientific community nor published. "I just want to know how much radiation" will be used, she added.

In Hauter's experience with food irradiation, a process similar to mail irradiation, objects are bombarded with about 7 kiloGrays -- the equivalent of 233 million chest X-rays. She believes the USPS machines, which use a slightly different "e-beam" technology, would deliver 25 kiloGrays. Even at that high level of irradiation, Hauter and Folkers question the devices' efficacy for killing anthrax spores.

"There is not very much research out there," said Hauter, and what there is, she says, does not address the e-beam technology. What research Folkers found indicated there is scientific evidence that water must be present to have irradiation kill spores. But, she said, spores contain only 15 percent to 20 percent water, while normal cells contain about 70 percent water. "Radiation kills by breaking down water," she said. Hauter also claims that e-beams only penetrate 1.5 inches through a package, so thick materials with spores on the bottom would not be sterilized, even if the technology does work.

Titan Scan, the military contractor that is selling the e-beam units to the USPS, did not return numerous calls for comment. Its major competitor, Belgium-based IBA, would not remark on whether it was negotiating with the U.S. government over selling its irradiation units. IBA did announce, however, on Oct. 23, that its e-beam technology "can kill anthrax spores."

The American Postal Workers Union severely limited media interviews last week, so there's no official word on workers' choice between the dangers of anthrax inhalation or potential dangers from ionizing radiation. In the current climate of anthrax fears, it's likely that postal workers would choose the latter risk. However, if anyone may suffer from irradiation devices, it would be USPS employees.

Most of the bad history with irradiation devices, including fatalities, have involved a technology that uses gamma rays as the source of irradiation, not the e-beam technology pursued by the USPS. But there are two instances of workers in e-beam food irradiation facilities losing extremities in the 1990s, according to Public Citizen, and one instance in which two cancer patients were killed when an e-beam irradiator used in cancer therapy malfunctioned.

What might prove more hazardous to workers is the ozone given off by the electron beam. "The long-term effect on lungs can be deadly," noted Hauter, who added that the devices must have plenty of fresh air to minimize exposure.

Like the fruitcake initially in question, ionizing radiation may alter more than its intended target -- if it's going to try to kill a tough little anthrax spore, it's going to have some effects on everything else it passes through. NIRS, in its request for information from USPS, asked for details on damage to film, computer equipment, magnetic media, scientific research materials and blood. Public Citizen, in its Freedom of Information Act request, added questions of e-beam's effect on pharmaceuticals, eyeglasses and credit cards.

For certain, irradiation would make it impossible to ship certain products through the USPS. Food items would have to forfeit any "organic" labels after being zapped, which could be a major blow to the organic foods market. It is unlikely that seeds would be able to germinate after being passed through an e-beam. And in its literature, Titan admits to color changes in plastics as well as embrittlement. IBA admits there are side effects to mail, but deems them "limited" and gives no details.

No one wants to be the target -- intended or unintended -- of biological warfare. But in its hurry to protect the postal system, the government may not be adequately addressing public concerns in the matter. Folkers, for one, would rather have her questions answered than finding out 20 years from now about deadly long-term consequences of irradiated mail -- and she works in Washington, D.C.

"I'd rather take my chance [with anthrax]," she admits, "than the government take these measures without full disclosure."

J.A. Savage is a senior correspondent for California Energy Markets newsletter.

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