- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

Assuring the safety of the mail could require costs both financial and in terms of privacy that Americans may be unwilling to pay, a new analysis suggests.
"Before committing billions of dollars to technologies for the long-term enhancement of mail safety, federal authorities would be wise to ask the public how they weigh these costs and benefits," H. Keith Florig writes in an essay in today's issue of the journal Science.
Mr. Florig is part of a research group at Carnegie Mellon University that studies the issues of risk.
His look at mail safety comes in the wake of the mailing of anthrax-laced letters last fall to people in Florida, New York and Washington. Five persons, including two postal workers, died and several were sickened.
Society's willingness to pay for preventing future incidents, Mr. Florig concludes, "should be based on combined economic, political, psychological and public health damage that such mischief can inflict."
Since the anthrax mailings, the U.S. Postal Service has begun irradiating mail addressed to federal agencies, is purchasing radiation machines for use in other areas and is studying other means of improving mail safety.
Mail radiation was a good short-term decision by the post office to protect federal officials, Mr. Florig said, but long-range strategies should be studied carefully.
Postal Vice President Azeezaly Jaffer said the post office is "committed to finding the right combination of technologies."
"We are exploring all options," he said. "When you start looking at risk and benefit we lost two people what is the value of a human life. … What happened with this changed the way everyone lives today and the mails are no different."
Radiation strong enough to kill anthrax spores can damage some items in the mail. Some postal workers and others in federal offices have complained of sickness after handling irradiated mail.
Radiation also can be costly, and it and other methods could slow movement of the mail, said Mr. Florig, a senior research engineer at the University in Pittsburgh.
One day, sensors that can screen for a variety of threats may prove the answer, Mr. Florig said, though the current technology is slow.
Sensors are also the answer being urged by the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which lost two members to anthrax.
Sensors could head off problems and would be less costly than irradiating billions of pieces of mail that don't need radiation, said Sally Davidow of APWU.
"We also feel irradiation of mail sends the wrong message to the public. It implies that the mail is not safe, and there is no reason to conclude that at this point," Miss Davidow said.
Mr. Florig said in a telephone interview that "nobody has measured whether the public is willing to accept the materials damage, the increase in costs and inconvenience … and other measures that might make the mail safer in return for that added measure of safety, whatever that might be."
For example, he pointed out that radiation can alter medicines and medical specimens, sanitize seeds, expose or cloud film, discolor lenses and glass fiber, fry electronics, make paper brittle, change the taste of some foods and alter some plastics. Stamp collectors have also reported damage from irradiation.
One way around this risk would be for people mailing items that might be damaged by radiation to submit them for inspection first. That, however, would raise privacy questions, Mr. Florig said.
He estimated the cost of radiating mail at 0.3 cents to 0.8 cents per item, an amount he developed by studying the cost of irradiating food and obtaining data from companies in the radiation business.
"To cover the cost of irradiating all 200 billion pieces of mail handled by USPS annually, postal rates would have to be raised by 1 percent to 2 percent," he said.
Following a $1.68 billion loss last year, the Postal Service is seeking a 3-cent increase in stamp prices to take effect in June to 37 cents.
The costs of sanitizing the mail will be in addition to that. President Bush promised $175 million and the agency is seeking an additional $500 million.
Bioterrorists have alternatives, Mr. Florig added. For example, if mail were irradiated but private delivery services did not follow suit, terrorists could switch shippers.

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