Irradiation Could Damage Seeds, Electronics

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 causing concern among direct marketers.

Ed McCabe, president/CEO of mail-order photo processor Mystic Color Lab, Mystic, CT, said that he has been working on this issue in conjunction with other mail-order photo processors, the Direct Marketing Association and the Photo Marketing Association, Jackson, MI.

“We've been working to mitigate any potential problem that could arise, but it's still a situation that is in flux,” he said. “We do know that none of our mail is being irradiated at this time. We have been told that outgoing mail will not be a problem. The potential problem is customers sending film into us. We have been assured by the [USPS] that it is not their intention to harm anyone's business.

“We are working with our competitors on this because we have a common bond here.”

McCabe also said he had asked Rep. Rob Simmons, R-CT, to try to influence his colleagues in Congress to look into the matter.

“My instant reaction [when I first heard about this] was that it may be overkill, that they may be going too fast, too far,” McCabe said. “Is it going to cost more? Yes. Postal rates will go up and everyone will pay for it. All the mailers will end up paying for it.”

In addition to film, radiation safety experts say that seeds, electronics and other commonly shipped items 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). He said that 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.

The USPS announced Friday an expenditure of about $40 million for eight electronic pasteurization systems from Titan Corp., San Diego. Irradiation units generate controlled, nonradioactive 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.

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 is 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.

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.”

Spokesman Colby Wolfe at W. Atlee Burpee Seeds, Warminster, PA, said his company is waiting for a report to be prepared by the Mail Order Gardening Association, of which it is a member. An association task force that is to study the machines will compile a list of what can and cannot be done regarding the machines.

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