Is the Government Trying to Hide Irradiated Mail Dangers?

July 3, 2002
"Handling irradiated mail for substantial periods of time may be the cause, or a contributing cause, of adverse health symptoms reported by a significant number of legislative branch employees."

That's the conclusion reached by a report released Tuesday (July 2) by the general counsel of the federal government's Office of Compliance (OC) after three months of study and an investigation of 215 documented reports of symptoms apparently caused by irradiated mail.

The OC's general counsel has virtually the same investigative powers as the Labor Department secretary has under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The report began as a result of written requests from House and Senate members as well as written complaints from congressional employees.

Despite the OC's investigative authority, the report complained that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and a host of other federal agencies failed to cooperate with its investigation. While the OC believes it reached the appropriate conclusions in its report, it observed that "our investigation might have been more effective and certainly would have been completed more promptly and efficiently if we had not encountered a lack of cooperation by some agencies and officials."

Delivery of mail to Congress was suspended for almost three months from October to January due to the detection of anthrax spores in 16 congressional offices. Before resuming delivery of the mail to Congress in January, the U.S. Postal Service developed and implemented a new method to disinfect potentially contaminated mail through the use of large doses of irradiation. This is the first time a large group of employees has been exposed to irradiated mail on a regular basis.

While OC was in the middle of its investigation, NIOSH completed a separate study of the potential health hazards of irradiated mail. The OC report complained that on March 22, it sought an unredacted copy of the NIOSH study and agreed to maintain the confidentiality of the report. NIOSH never handed over the unredacted copy, according to OC.

"We also asked to accompany the NIOSH team as they conducted their irradiated mail investigation commencing February 2002," the OC report noted. "We were not permitted to participate in this investigation."

The OC report reached conclusions that appear to be at odds with the NIOSH report, which played down the health hazards of handling irradiated mail. According to the NIOSH report, released to the public in a redacted form April 23, "We did not find evidence suggesting the potential for long-term health effects from handling irradiated mail."

OC's general counsel stated that NIOSH's refusal to participate in OC's investigation "made it more difficult for us to determine the chemical byproducts of irradiation that NIOSH studied and what NIOSH found."

NIOSH was not the only federal agency that declined to participate in the OC study. The general counsel said that in connection with its investigation, it requested meetings with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Postal Service. "We never received a response to our requests for assistance from these agencies," according to the OC report.

Among the findings of the OC report:

  • A substantial number of legislative branch employees handling the mail initially displayed significant adverse health symptoms.
  • The number of employees affected has declined in recent weeks, as have the seriousness of the symptoms, but "adverse employee health effects remain substantial."
  • Reported symptoms includes headaches, nausea, nose bleeds, rashes and similar problems.

The report indicated the presence of certain irritant chemicals produced by the mail irradiation process, but OC has not been able to quantify the amounts of these chemicals in the mail.

"Given the number of employees still experiencing significant symptoms, we believe additional testing is necessary to determine whether or not irritant chemicals or other factors are the cause of employee symptoms."

The report recommends:

  • Continued monitoring of employees with symptoms, with results reported simultaneously to an attending physician and OC;
  • Additional studies to determine the degree of exposures to chemical byproducts of irradiated mail and varying exposures related to different mail handling procedures; and
  • Basic interim precautions, such as having the U.S. Postal Service air out the mail prior to delivery to congressional offices, handling the mail in well-ventilated areas, the possible use of nonlatex gloves by employees with symptoms and the washing of hands after mail handling.

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