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Study finds no health risk from irradiated mail

From Mike Ahlers

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Irradiated mail -- believed by some congressional staffers to be responsible for illnesses ranging from skin irritation to headaches and nausea -- does not contain substances at levels known to cause health problems, a federal study concludes.

More than 250 Capitol Hill employees complained of various illnesses in December and January after the U.S. Postal Service began irradiating mail to kill possible anthrax bacteria.

The irradiation process dries out paper and makes it brittle and also can release fumes from plastics.

But "sampled substances were either not detected or were found at low levels below those known to cause health problems," according to study results given to congressional staffers this week.

The study was conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We did not find evidence suggesting the potential for long-term health effects from handling irradiated mail," the report said.

However, the report said some employees may get dry skin and skin irritation by handling the treated mail because the irradiation process heats and dries out paper. In addition, irradiated mail may produce odors that some individuals "can smell at levels below occupational guidelines and in some cases below air monitoring detection limits," the study noted.

Further, the report said, "Heightened awareness and resultant employee stress from recent terrorist attacks may have contributed to workers' symptoms."

The institute interviewed 389 employees regarding symptoms related to handling mail.

The Postal Service is continuing to irradiate mail addressed to certain federal government offices in Washington. After the flurry of complaints this year, the Postal Service began a series of procedures, including airing out the mail, before delivering it to government offices.

A separate Office of Compliance investigation into the illnesses continues.




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