NYTimes.com Article: The Irradiation of Mail Can Also Zap the Contents
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The Irradiation of Mail Can Also Zap the Contents
January 11, 2002
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
Attempts by the United States Postal Service to make mail
safer by zapping it with radiation have hit a snag: the
process tends to destroy computer chips and to damage other
delicate items including food, pharmaceuticals, clothing,
contact lenses - and even the paper mail itself.
"The irradiation process, as I understand it, generates
heat, and that's the killer," said Bob Anderson, a
spokesman for the Postal Service, in response to questions
about the problem.
That, of course, was the original idea: killing anthrax
spores like the ones that were mailed to Congressional
offices and to news media companies. In response, the
Postal Service began to put mail to federal recipients and
to some media companies through sterilizing machines.
The Postal Service is currently trucking mail to be
sanitized to temporary processing centers in Ohio and New
Jersey, and has bought eight irradiation machines from the
Titan Corporation (news/quote) of La Jolla, Calif., for $5
million each. The machinery exposes the mail to potent
beams of electrons - a technology that, on a less intense
level, can be used to sanitize food.
But something powerful enough to destroy hardy anthrax
spores plays havoc with less hardy objects. Staff members
in federal offices in Washington say that paper mail
deteriorates under the treatment and that photographs are
ruined: the mail, some of which has been delayed for months
because of the anthrax worries, is "much like letters that
were set aside and buried under a pile in someone's garage
for three years," a Congressional aide said. Some of the
mail in New Jersey has caught fire.
This week the CompactFlash Association, which represents
makers of memory cards used in digital cameras, personal
computers and portable music players, warned that the beams
"will not only cause loss of data stored on the cards, but
the cards will no longer be operable."
A spokesman for the association, Bill Frank, said other
chips are also affected. "We've done some tests and this
destroys the stuff," he said.
Bill Calder, a spokesman for the chip maker Intel
(news/quote), confirmed that many kinds of chips were at
risk. "They're not wrong to say semiconductors could
potentially be damaged," he said.
That is not much of a problem right now, said Mr. Anderson
of the Postal Service, because the scope of the federal
mail-sanitizing program is currently limited to federal
offices and some media companies. "It's really a nonissue,
because Aunt Millie is not going to get her mail
irradiated," he said, adding that the attacks were focused
and so "our response is targeted" as well.
Mr. Anderson said the Postal Service had called together a
working group from affected industries - including shippers
of high-technology goods, drugs, clothing and food - to
test products and try to establish procedures for
identifying mail that can be damaged by the beams, and to
help those companies avoid the process.
"We don't want to fry the mail," Mr. Anderson said. "That
doesn't serve our customers." He said that the goal of the
Postal Service was to deliver the mail "as safely and as
economically as possible."
A spokesman for Titan, Wil Williams, said the company had
made the destructive potential of its technology clear to
the Postal Service. The mass mailing and catalog companies,
he said, already use presorting procedures that generally
keep their mail from going through the sterilizing system.
Paper tested by his company was not damaged, Mr. Williams
said, but he added that the intense effort to sanitize so
much mail could lead to varying results. "Every new process
that we're doing that comes along, you have to take the
nicks out of it and make it efficient," he said.
Ultimately, the problems with mail-sanitizing technology
may be diminishing in importance because of another mail
technology, said David Carle, a spokesman for Senator
Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. "Senator Leahy and
his staff," he said, "noticed that a threshold was crossed
in April of last year, when for the first time e-mail
surpassed postal mail in volume. That process has been
accelerated since the anthrax problem."
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