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Postal Service to Irradiate Mail

By Robert A. Rosenblatt
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- washington

The Postal Service will install special equipment at 250 to 300 mail processing centers throughout the country during the next 15 to 18 months to irradiate mail and kill anthrax spores or other dangerous bacteria, a top official said Thursday.

The first machines will be installed within 60 days in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., where letters contamined with anthrax have been sent or received, Deputy Postmaster General John Nolan said in an interview.

Meanwhile, four tractor-trailer loads of mail destined for the White House and Congress have been sent to Ohio be be irradiated.

More than 90 percent of all mail -- catalogs, advertising circulars, mass mailings from charities and bills from major companies, banks and utilities -- is considered relatively safe from tampering because it is produced by professional printing plants under comparativley tight security.

This mail is presorted by the mailers, reducing the amount of processing required by the postal service. Postal officials believe it does not need to be irradiated.

Rather, the sanitizing radiation will be applied to personally prepared letters like the ones addressed to NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D).

The equipment produces radiation that kills any bacteria inside an envelope and on its surface, Nolan said.

The machines will be used primarily on the collection end of the postal process. The letter carriers will pick up mail from homes and street boxes and bundle it for distribution to the appropriate mail-processing centers. There, the envelopes will be irradiated before being placed into the machines that read their ZIP codes and sort them by destination.

“We anticipate changing our production plans for the collection of mail, to do more centralization than we are currently doing,” Nolan said. That means the potentially hazardous mail will be bundled for processing in a smaller number of facilities, to hold to a minimum the number of machines the postal service has to buy.

At the destination end of the postal process, Nolan said, radiation treatment will be available as an extra service for customers deemed to be the likeliest targets of terrorists, such as public officials and members of the news media.

Four million face masks have been purchased and 2 million have been disbursed to 140 locations. The masks can “filter out 95 percent of all microbes in the air, including anthrax spores,” the postal service said in its latest report on the anthrax issue.

The use of gloves and masks is encouraged, but not required.