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THE NATION

Concerns Raised on Irradiated Mail

Health: A report says symptoms such as headaches and itching skin may be linked to the handling of items sent to federal agencies.

July 02, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A substantial number of congressional employees may have experienced long-term health problems linked to the handling of irradiated mail, including headaches, burning eyes and nausea, says a report to be released today.

"We believe these symptoms are not insignificant, both in terms of the number of complaints and in the effect on employee health and work performance," the general counsel of the Office of Compliance said in the report.

The congressional office cautioned that the study had not established a definitive cause of the broad range of symptoms reported, and it did not have enough information to judge whether there is a serious health risk. It recommended further studies and precautionary steps such as limiting the time employees spend handling mail.

In January, after a three-month suspension of deliveries following the detection of anthrax spores in 16 congressional offices, the U.S. Postal Service began treating all mail addressed to Congress and federal agencies with large doses of irradiation.

Shortly after the resumption of deliveries, congressional offices and postal offices began reporting health problems among workers exposed to the irradiated mail.

The report said 215 congressional employees responded to a written survey in February and March that they or others in their office had health problems. Of 148 contacted by phone in March and April, 72% said they were still experiencing ill health.

Among all those responding, half said they got headaches when handling mail, 32% said they had itching skin, 23% burning and red eyes and 21% nausea.

Of 168 people who participated in a follow-up survey in May, 55% said they were still experiencing symptoms. However, 61% of those still experiencing symptoms said they were getting better.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who requested the investigation, said irradiating mail "was and is a big experiment." In light of the report, he said, the office of "the Senate sergeant-at-arms and its Legislative Mail Task Force may have been too quick to conclude irradiated mail was harmless, and they may not have taken employees' health concerns seriously enough."

The report stressed it surveyed only those who elected to respond, and thus the results were not a scientifically valid sampling. But it said scientists who analyzed air samples from House and Senate mailrooms found low levels of irritant chemical byproducts caused by irradiation of the mail.

The report speculated that the byproducts probably emanated from the cellulose contents of the paper mail, which are broken down in the irradiation process.

It noted that the Postal Service believed there was a problem with some "overdoses" of irradiation.

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