- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2002

A substantial number of congressional employees may have experienced long-term health problems including headaches, burning eyes and nausea linked to the handling of irradiated mail, says a report being made public 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 says 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 was a serious health risk. It recommended further studies and precautionary steps such as limiting the time employees spent handling mail.
In January, after a three-month suspension of deliveries in response to 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 deliveries resumed, congressional offices and post offices began reporting health problems among workers exposed to the irradiated mail.
The report said 215 congressional employees indicated in a written survey in February and March that they or others in their offices had health problems. Of 148 contacted by phone in March and April, 72 percent said they still were experiencing ill health.
Among all those responding, half reported headaches when handling mail, 32 percent said they had itching skin, 23 percent burning and red eyes, and 21 percent nausea.
Of 168 persons who participated in a follow-up survey in May, 55 percent said they still were experiencing symptoms. However, 61 percent of those still experiencing symptoms said they were improving.
The report stressed that 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 breakdown of cellulose contents of the paper mail during the irradiation process.
It noted that the Postal Service believed there was a problem with some "overdoses" of irradiation, a common practice in disinfecting food and medical devices, at the beginning of the process, but that problem was corrected. Health problems also were reported at post offices handling irradiated mail.
Mail deliveries to the Capitol were halted in October after an anthrax-tainted letter was found in the building containing the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.
Mail heading for federal offices in Washington now is sanitized with radiation at postal facilities outside the city.


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