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Report calls for more study of irradiated mail

Study finds no clear link between treatment, illnesses

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- More than six months after the U.S. Postal Service began to irradiate congressional mail in response to anthrax attacks, employees continue to experience health problems ranging from headaches to skin rashes, according to a report released Tuesday.

But the study by the congressional Office of Compliance, which monitors workplace and health conditions, said there is not "sufficient information" to conclusively link irradiated mail to the reported symptoms.

The Office of Compliance's general counsel, Gary Green, called the findings "troublesome for those who would like to close the book on the question of irradiated mail."

Green said the study, which monitored 215 staffers for three months, is not conclusive. He said more comprehensive tests are needed to determine whether a serious health risk is associated with irradiated mail.

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The report said investigators found "certain irritant chemicals produced by the mail irradiation process." But they were unable to conclude whether those chemicals contributed to health problems.

"What we have learned is that there is not enough information to determine either that the handling of irradiated mail causes these symptoms or that it does not cause these symptoms," Green said. "Until the additional studies are done, I think questions will remain about whether irradiation -- either alone or in combination with other factors -- is contributing to discomfort, loss of productivity and the symptoms we've reported."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and other lawmakers requested the study in February. Grassley said officials may have been too quick to irradiate mail without knowing potential side effects.

"In retrospect, the Senate sergeant at arms and its Legislative Mail Task Force may have been too quick to conclude irradiated mail was harmless, and they may not have taken employees' health concerns seriously enough. Irradiating the mail was and is a big experiment," Grassley said in a written statement.

The Postal Service has been irradiating congressional mail since delivery to the Capitol resumed in January. Delivery had been suspended for three months after an aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle opened a letter containing anthrax spores.

Soon after employees began handling irradiated mail, many reported health problems.

The employees involved in the study had contacted the Office of Compliance. According to the report, 51 percent got headaches after handling the mail; 32 percent had itching skin; 23 percent got burning and red eyes; 21 percent experienced nausea; 15 percent developed a visible rash; and 11 percent suffered from nosebleeds.

An inspection team interviewed the employees periodically over three months and found that by May 2002, 55 percent of those originally reporting health problems continued to have symptoms.

While the report concludes that more tests are necessary, it recommends that congressional employees handling the mail take precautions such as "wearing protective gloves if they display symptoms when handling irradiated mail" and "limiting the amount of time individual employees expend in mail handling."

Green said the office is recommending two further types of tests: comprehensive medical evaluations of employees still suffering from health problems and a workplace exposure assessment to determine if chemical by-products present in mail, or other factors, could pose serious health risks.

Green said he will be asking Congress to set aside money for the additional tests. Green would not estimate how much that would cost.

Five people died last fall after anthrax-laced letters were sent through the mail to members of Congress in Washington and to television network offices in New York.

Two Washington postal workers died of inhaled anthrax, as did two women thought to have been infected from the mail. A Florida employee of a national tabloid newspaper also died of inhaled anthrax, and though no contaminated letter was found in connection with his death, investigators found traces of anthrax in the company's mailroom.

At least 13 people developed either skin or respiratory anthrax, but they have recovered.

The strain of anthrax found in letters mailed to U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, is called Ames, the Iowa city where researchers first isolated it




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