- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

Confusion over what is causing government workers to complain about headaches, skin rashes and burning eyes escalated yesterday as the U.S. Postal Service said the symptoms are not being caused by the irradiation of all government mail a security precaution implemented in the wake of the anthrax attacks.
To demonstrate how sure officials are that irradiated mail is safe, at a news conference yesterday, a senior vice president of the Postal Service rubbed a large, recently irradiated envelope beneath her nose and sniffed deeply, saying "at this time, we've found no medical or scientific evidence linking the irradiated mail to the symptoms mentioned."
Meanwhile, Robert J. Martin, the national ombudsman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said he believes the symptoms are being caused by lingering chemicals used to kill anthrax spores on Capitol Hill, particularly in the Hart Senate Office Building, where an anthrax-tainted letter was opened in October.
Mr. Martin, pressed by reports that the Senate Finance Committee is investigating why it cost the EPA more than $14 million to rid the Hart building of anthrax, last week requested that the agency prove by the close of business yesterday that sufficient tests were done prior to the anthrax cleanup, to assure no chemical contaminants were left inside the building.
Chlorine dioxide and hydrochloric acid, as well as other potential contaminants, could be in the air for a significant period of time, posing a "potential serious health risk" to those working in the building, Mr. Martin said.
Upon the EPA's failure to respond late yesterday, Mr. Martin wrote to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman that he presumes her agency "does not have the requisite analytical test results to irrefutably conclude that the Hart Senate Office Building is safe for occupation by the United States senators, their staff and visitors."
The agency apparently failed to perform "comprehensive environmental testing for all the contaminants that could be expected to be present in the Hart office building subsequent to chlorine dioxide fumigation, and prior to reopening of the building," Mr. Martin said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.
During the past week, staffers in at least six Senate offices have complained of headaches, nausea and a tingling sensation in their fingers after handling irradiated mail.
Additionally, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, in a letter Friday to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said her chief of staff reported a burning sensation on his hands after going through his mail, and her office manager complained of eye, nose and throat irritation, as well as headaches, a metallic taste and a burning sensation on her hands and face. Mrs. Feinstein's spokesman, Howard Gantman, said "the complaints about our mail started before we were back in Hart, so it appears there is something with the mail, rather than the Hart building."
Mrs. Feinstein's letter sparked the formation of a task force led by Senate Sergeant at Arms Alfonso Lenhardt to investigate health concerns among those handling the irradiated mail.
"Capturing comprehensive, quantitative details regarding health concerns in this post-anthrax environment is important for several reasons," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, wrote in a letter to Mr. Lenhardt yesterday.
"It will inform the debate over whether the Hart building is safe for staff and visitors and whether irradiated mail is harmful."
Deborah K. Willhite, a senior vice president of the Postal Service who met with the Senate task force yesterday, said she couldn't speculate about what is causing the symptoms among Mrs. Feinstein's staff.
She did say that there had been a "spike" in the number of complaints received by the Postal Service since the reopening of the Hart building.
But she also said the Postal Service in November had addressed concerns about the packaging being wrapped around mail when it is irradiated, because several postal workers "opening bags [of irradiated mail] were getting some pretty doggone good headaches."
The Postal Service solved the problem by putting irradiated mail through a special "ventilation and deodorizing system" before distributing it on Capitol Hill, Mrs. Willhite said.

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