USPS Irradiation System Could Risk Damage to Seeds, Electronics

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The U.S. Postal Service's purchase of electron beam irradiation systems late last week to help prevent the spread of anthrax through the mail is being questioned, according to news reports.

Radiation safety experts say that some commonly shipped items, such as seeds, film and electronics, could be affected.

"You would not want to put film or seeds anywhere near it," said Andrew Karam, a radiation safety officer at the University of Rochester (NY).

Some electronic equipment, such as personal digital assistants and computers, also could be affected, he said.

"Germs take a lot more radiation to kill," he said. "That means this would be a heavy dose."

The USPS announced Friday an expenditure of about $40 million for eight electronic pasteurization systems from San Diego-based Titan Corp. Irradiation units generate controlled, non-radioactive electronic beams that kill harmful bacteria. The technology is considered safer than using radiation from radioactive elements that are more difficult to contain.

The equipment is being installed in "targeted areas." The first units are being sent to the Washington, DC, area. The USPS may buy as many as 12 units to install in mail-processing centers nationwide.

The USPS said that it is doing research "to ensure that the technology used for sanitizing equipment does not cause other problems by damaging sensitive material."

Those who use the USPS are considering their response.

"Depending on how high the radiation levels are, we might switch to a different carrier," said Colby Wolfe, a spokesman for Burpee Seeds, Warminster, PA.

Ed McCabe, president of Mystic Color Labs, a Web-based photo development company that ships more than 3 million packages of film annually, said, "It's very much in the air. We're trying to see just what the machines will or will not do to our film."

Titan spokesman Wil Williams said the machines can treat about 1,000 pounds of mail per hour. If used on packages containing electronics, the electron beams could damage the equipment. They also could expose unexposed film, damage plants and inhibit seeds from germinating.

He said it's unlikely the technology will be applied to packages containing such items.

"No one is making any claims this will be used to process everything," he said.

Irradiation used to treat bacteria such as anthrax is likely to kill most everything else. Karam said the irradiation needed to kill anthrax is about 100 million times stronger than what items are exposed to under an average airport security X-ray machine.

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