The American Council on Science and Health has suggested the United States Postal Service employ irradiation technology to sanitize the mail and protect workers and mail recipients from biohazardous threats.

Postmaster General John Potter yesterday said there is no way he could guarantee that all mail is safe and free of biowarfare agents such as anthrax.

“That’s why we’re asking people to handle mail very carefully,” Potter said on ABC’s “Good Morning, America” program. “People have to be aware of everything in their day-to-day life, and certainly, mail in our system is threatened right now.”

In light of the deaths of two Washington, D.C.-area postal workers, who died after contracting the inhalation form of anthrax, and since other pieces of mail in New York City as well as Washington, D.C., are known to have carried anthrax spores, “the situation warrants rapid action to guard against further contamination and exposure,” the health consortium – representing more than 350 doctors and scientists – said in a statement.

“The technology exists to safeguard the mail – irradiation. Irradiation technology is already widely used in the United States to sterilize a variety of medical, hygiene and packaging products,” said the council.

Surgical gloves, bandages, the individual plastic containers of creamer found on restaurant tables, and tampons are a few everyday items in use that have been treated with irradiation technology.

Irradiation has been approved to kill disease-causing bacteria in a number of foods, such as poultry and red meat, and to sterilize herbs, spices and other food ingredients, the group said.

“Bacteria are susceptible to relatively low doses, but bacterial spores, like those of anthrax, would require higher doses to be inactivated,” said the group.

While a higher does of irradiation may not lend itself well to food products, there is no reason why they can’t be used on mail, doctors and scientists with the council concluded.

“There are more than 50 facilities in the United States that use irradiation on a daily basis,” says ACSH President Dr. Elizabeth Whelen. “There is no reason the process couldn’t be adapted to sanitize our mail.”

The group suggested that, in the short term, mail could be transported to facilities that already have irradiation technologies in place.

“A future goal might be to equip major postal centers with such means of safeguarding the mail,” said the group.

Besides killing anthrax spores, the technology could also be used as a deterrent against sending other bioweapons through the mail in the future, the council said.

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