SAN JOSE, Calif. – As the U.S. Postal Service begins to sterilize letters and packages with radiation, it faces daunting questions of logistics and safety.
The agency has already started to treat a small, carefully selected volume of mail with radiation to kill possible anthrax and other biowarfare agents, and is making plans to greatly expand the effort.
But while irradiation technology has been around for years and is used on an array of consumer products from Band-Aids to baby-bottle nipples, it has never been tested on the motley assortment of objects that move through the U.S. mail.
Scientists say many of those items should not be exposed to the high dose of radiation that is needed to kill an anthrax spore, one of the tougher microbial life forms. At that level, radiation can rob meat of its flavor, discolor paper, glass and plastic, kill seeds, wreck photographic film and turn fruits and vegetables mushy.
While irradiation firms say they have tested some items that have come through without damage – the list includes credit cards, videotapes and compact discs – many others have not been tested, including most prescription drugs.
That has some pharmacists and drug manufacturers worried, because an estimated 160 million orders of prescription medication are sent to American consumers each year through the mail.
“We believe it would be unwise to use this technology to irradiate mail without a great deal more knowledge on how this will affect pharmaceutical products,” said Jeff Simek, a spokesman for Merck-Medco, a pharmacy benefits company that mails out more than 1 million prescriptions each week. “It’s not something we’d like to guess about.”
Steve Gray, a top pharmacist and administrator for Kaiser Permanente in California, said, “This is just so new that we don’t have any authoritative information.”
The irradiation of mail began last week at a facility in Lima, Ohio. It is sterilizing mail from Capitol Hill and Washington under a contract with Titan and its subsidiary, SureBeam Technologies, both in San Diego.
The Postal Service is also buying eight irradiation machines from Titan, with an option to buy a dozen more, and planning to treat more mail at a New Jersey irradiation plant run by Ion Beam Applications, based in Belgium.
Postal officials said some mail will be sterilized at major postal centers on the East Coast, starting in Washington. However, they would not say what types of mail would be treated or where the other centers would be.
On Thursday, Postmaster General John Potter told a Senate subcommittee that buying irradiation equipment to treat the mail would cost $3 billion to $4 billion. The Postal Service has not said how much of the mail it plans to treat.
An agency for the Postal Service said it is working with businesses to examine such issues as how irradiation would affect pharmaceuticals or foods.
Wil Williams, a spokesman for Titan and SureBeam, said, “Obviously there are some things you would not want to put into the beam, such as electronics, seeds, undeveloped photography film. Just like the flight industry has had to adapt its procedures for terrorist threats, the post office is going to have to adapt its protocols on how it handles the mail so that sensitive items are diverted and not exposed to radiation.
Irradiation is widely used in industry. It kills germs in hamburger and spices, toughens the rubber in tires, hardens plastic pipes and disinfects a range of medical devices, from bandages to hypodermic needles.
The level of radiation varies, depending on the goal. Much lower levels are needed to pasteurize food – killing germs that cause human illness but not those that make food spoil – than to sterilize a medical device.
“If consumers knew how many products they use had been touched or sterilized by radiation, I think they’d be surprised.” said James Dickson, a microbiologist at Iowa State University.
There are about 70 free-standing irradiation centers that process industrial products, Dickson said, and about 2,400 supermarkets in 20 states that sell irradiated meat, which people in the industry prefer to call “electronically pasteurized.'”