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Handling Irradiated Mail

Following the anthrax attacks of October 2001, U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and government officials recognized the need to improve the safety of the mail. To make the mail safe from biohazards in a timely fashion, the USPS began irradiating mail destined for government offices in specified ZIP Codes (202, 203, 204 and 205) in the Washington, D.C. area. Irradiation destroys bacteria and viruses that could be present in the mail. Irradiation began in the fall of 2001; shortly thereafter federal workers began reporting health symptoms they believed were related to handling irradiated mail.

Washington Capital, mail package, man setting up air samplers

These reports came to the attention of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) when it received requests for health hazard evaluations from the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and the Sergeant at Arms of the U.S. Senate and the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In response to these requests, NIOSH conducted three health hazard evaluations on the handling of irradiated mail by postal employees, federal workers, and Congressional employees. NIOSH sent teams of investigators, including industrial hygienists and occupational medical physicians, to survey employees about their symptoms and to monitor the air for chemical by-products that could be released from the mail. The reports of these teams are linked from this page. NIOSH did not detect airborne contaminants above occupational exposure limits. Employees reported skin irritation, eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and nausea. These symptoms may have resulted from a combination of various factors, including suboptimal environmental humidity, drying effects on the skin of handling irradiated paper, odors, and stress. NIOSH has reported findings and recommendations to employers and workers.

NIOSH is continuing to address issues related to irradiated mail through participation in the Legislative Mail Task Force, convened by the Sergeant at Arms of the U.S. Senate and the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives


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