Mail, delivered well-done

Radiation: High-energy beams designed to kill anthrax often work too well, turning letters yellow and damaging their contents.

January 15, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Franklin Kelly, a curator at the National Gallery of Art, knew something was wrong the moment he saw the yellowed envelope in his mailbox.

Inside, he discovered that color slides of 18th-century oil paintings he'd been eagerly awaiting were warped and bubbly. "They were nuked," he says. And he was one of the lucky ones. A colleague's color transparency arrived so badly deformed that it "looked like someone had poured molasses on it and then slapped it in a George Foreman grill."

After months of delay, batches of irradiated mail are trickling back to government employees. But some are finding platinum credit cards stained the color of coffee, snapshots singed, magazines fused shut and floppy disks wiped clean by the powerful electron beams that were intended only to kill anthrax and other biological poisons.

The cooked correspondence offers a glimpse of what some Americans might encounter in the months ahead. Since October, the U.S. Postal Service has been trucking mail addressed to Washington federal agencies to Ohio and New Jersey for sterilization by two private firms. Soon, the agency plans to install eight electron-beam machines in mail-processing centers. For security reasons, postal officials won't say where the $5 million devices will go, but the post office is likely to widen the irradiation beyond Washington.

Anecdotal damage reports of irradiated mail to date show that yellowed mail is common but damage appears to be rare. "It's hit or miss," says Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of the Direct Marketing Association, which represents catalog retailers and other bulk mailers.

Typical of the kind of mail people are getting is what Arthur Wheelock, an art professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, found in his mailbox recently: a seminar paper mailed by a graduate student last fall that's so yellowed it "looks like she wrote it in 1903," he says. But otherwise, he says, it's perfectly legible.

There's little doubt the electron beams are potent. The mail at one of the firms irradiating for the postal service got so hot last month that it caught fire.

Although post office officials say they can sort mail to prevent sensitive items from undergoing irradiation, private companies that ship everything from prescription drugs to live bees to flower bulbs are worried about the effects of radiation if its use becomes widespread. Some businesses are conducting tests to assess the damage.

The Gemological Institute of America, for example, found that cultured pearls turned gray, blue sapphires became deep orange and pink kunzites went green when subjected to an electron beam. An electronics industry group reported last week that tests on flash memory cards and other digital devices showed damage after irradiation.

Postal officials say they have been working to fine tune the radiation dosage so that it kills harmful bacteria while minimizing damage to mail. "It's a learning process," says spokesman Gerry Kreienkamp. "There's so many variables to consider. We recognize the process will damage certain things."

But librarians and archivists are alarmed. Documents that come back brittle might not survive long. The American Library Association has become concerned enough to tack irradiation onto the agenda at its biannual meeting this week in New Orleans.

"This is something very dramatic for our collection," says Eliza Gilligan, a book conservator at the Smithsonian Institution. "If this does become a countrywide thing, it will have a major impact." Gilligan, whose office oversees the 1.3 million books and journals in the Smithsonian's collection, says she is seeing things that make her nervous: dissolved glue, pages together. "We have subscriptions to journals all over the world," she says. "It's a major investment."

But though the damaged mail poses problems for some, others are scrambling to collect it.

As soon as she noticed irradiated mail arriving at the National Gallery, Connie McCabe fired off an e-mail begging colleagues not to toss it. "The funny thing about conservators is they find deterioration fascinating," says McCabe, a photo conservator at the museum, adding that this is a rare opportunity to study how materials she works with react to electron beams. "We hope a once in a lifetime opportunity."

The National Postal Museum in Washington, meanwhile, is keeping an eye out for display-quality examples of zapped mail. Among the items it has set aside: an irradiated bag of microwave popcorn - which made it through slightly singed but without a kernel popped, says Ted Wilson, chairman of the museum's collections committee.

The museum has competition from stamp collectors, many of whom are rushing to get their hands on anything stamped "irradiated," as some post offices now do.

"This is the kind of thing that collectors just jump on with both feet," says Michael Laurence, editor of Linn's Stamp News, a weekly newspaper for philatelists in Sidney, Ohio. "I would certainly pay 15, 20, 25 bucks just to have one."

Irradiated mail, he says, is part of a long tradition dating back to the days when people fumigated their letters to kill yellow fever and other diseases. "Disinfected mail," as the genre is known to collectors, can fetch high prices. Laurence says he wouldn't be surprised if some collectors are trying to send mail through the Washington postal system in hopes of getting it irradiated.

People who work at government agencies, meanwhile, are doing everything they can to avoid it.

For people like Storrs L. Olson, a zoologist at the National Museum of Natural History, that means having colleagues around the globe send scientific papers to his home in Virginia. Institutions like the National Postal Museum are setting up a post office box outside the Washington ZIP codes that are affected by the irradiation.

"I certainly will think twice about putting something in the mail," says McCabe at the National Gallery.

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