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Last Updated

03 Jan 2003

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, July 29, 2002.

Here they zap, if not zip, mail to U.S. government

Inquirer Suburban Staff

Birthday cards for the President. Diplomats writing to the State Department. That letter to your congressman.

These days, they all go through Logan, Gloucester County.

All mail destined for federal offices in Washington - a quarter-million items a day - passes through Logan, home to a facility that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, bombarding parcels and post with sterilizing electron beams and X-ray waves.

Between Interstate 295 and the Commodore Barry Bridge, the gray, square structure that houses Ion Beam Applications is the nation's front line against another anthrax mail attack on the federal government.

The Belgian company that operates the plant was contracted in November and paid $2.4 million to sanitize 40 truckloads of mail sequestered at sorting facilities in New Jersey and Washington after the deadly spores were discovered.

Four people died from inhaling anthrax particles in four letters sent to New York and Florida media offices and two U.S. senators.

Since then, the U.S. Postal Service has irradiated all government mail addressed to the District of Columbia.

It is a protective step, but one with consequences.

Treated mail is warped and brittle, has been linked to sickness in workers, and is costing an already cash-strapped postal system millions of dollars.

It is also making timely constituent contact by mail impossible.

"The mail is considerably slower than it used to be," said U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), whose district includes Logan. "It's unfortunate, but I think it's necessary."

The winding course of a letter sent from, say, a resident of suburban Pennsylvania to his or her representative in the U.S. House would go like this:

First, the local post office would send the letter to the sorting facility at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. From there, it would travel to one of two distribution facilities in Maryland, where it would be separated from other mail. It then would be driven almost 100 miles to Gloucester County.

Once sterilized in Logan, the letter would be driven to Washington and taken to a special sorting facility on V Street. From there, letters go to the mail room of the individual federal agencies, some of which add their own procedures. In this case, the letter would finally make its way to the House member's desk.

Such mail has been submitted to one of two processes in Logan, depending on its thickness.

Legal-size letters are put under an electron beam, which delivers one quick but potent shot of negatively charged ions that attack bacteria, making it impossible for spores to reproduce.

Thicker envelopes and packages are put on an assembly line and exposed to X-ray waves, which are less powerful but can cover more area.

"With electron beams, we are taking a particle and shoving it through the mail at 98 percent the speed of light," said Tim Henry, director of mail sanitization at Ion Beam Applications. "The X-ray can penetrate through a box and can go a lot farther."

Ion Beam, which has 39 facilities in North America, Europe and Asia, planned the 70,000-square-foot plant in Logan to serve local food and pharmaceutical companies.

The machinery was not even fully in place when the company was contacted by the post office - now the plant's only customer.

"We were not planning to go into commercial operations until late 2001," Henry said.

About 35 employees, mostly engineers, staff the plant round the clock. The public is prohibited from going inside. The only outward indication that the building has a role in homeland security is a small sign near the loading dock: "Reserved for USPS."

Once it reaches Congress, an envelope is cut off at a corner and shaken to make sure there is no powder inside.

From postmark to delivery to mailroom should take less than a week, postal officials say.

Not so, according to those on Capitol Hill.

An aide to one of Pennsylvania's senators said his office had stopped ordering time-sensitive publications such as news magazines because they are out of date by the time they arrive.

In response to late mail, some legislators have revamped their Web sites to encourage more e-mail. Others are asking that mail be sent to their home offices.

The current method of irradiation is opposed by the American Postal Workers Union, whose rank and file have complained of nausea, headaches and burning skin after handling the treated mail.

"Some folks have had a tingling in their fingers," said Corey Thompson, the union safety and health specialist. "It's not only postal employees, it's workers on Capitol Hill as well."

In June, the congressional Office of Compliance released a report after reviewing 81 medical questionnaires from congressional employees.

"Handling irradiated mail for substantial periods of time may be the cause, or a contributing cause, of adverse health symptoms," the report said. "However, we do not have sufficient information at the time to reach any final conclusion."

Ion Beam's Henry said some of the complaints, such as sneezing and sore throats, could be attributed to the condition of the mail. After treatment, some letters take on a yellow hue, the corners curl, and the plastic window is sometimes melted. It is also extremely dry, Henry said, emitting dust after it is handled.

"If you have more dust in the air, you are blowing your nose and scratching your eyes more," he said. "That's probably the source of these complaints."

With more packages being irradiated with the less caustic X-ray, Henry said, complaints have dropped off.

Postal workers oppose other aspects of the process, as well. Union officials point out that two of the four people who died as a result of the anthrax attack were postal workers.

"If you mail a letter in Philadelphia to your congressman, it has already passed through the hands of a postal worker before it is irradiated," the union's Thompson said.

Postal officials, however, have no plans to stop irradiating federal government mail. The agency, which is expected to post $1.5 billion in losses this year, has agreed to pay Ion Beam $8 million for services that will end in November.

After that, eight irradiation devices purchased by the post office from a California company, Titan Systems, could be used to set up a permanent system closer to Washington. The cost of the machines was $40 million.

"It makes you wonder how long we have to go before another rate increase," said Edward Turzanski, a political science professor at La Salle University who teaches courses on terrorism and espionage. "It's an illustration of the impact of terrorism."

Turzanski said the anthrax mailings were an example of an "asymmetrical assault" - in which a person of limited means attacks a target with considerably greater resources.

The "Amerithrax" investigation, as the FBI calls it, will be a year old in September - with still no suspect in custody.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security is working on ways to make sure the mail is not used again as a vehicle for bioterrorism, Turzanski said.

"It's not only a gargantuan task logistically, but there is also the extraordinary expenditure of funds," he said. "This is the sort of thing that has to keep the security people up at night."