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Mail-Related Health Problems Persist Among 60 Staffers

70 Percent of Cases Resolved

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle revealed Thursday that of the 200 or more staffers who complained of feeling sick after coming in contact with irradiated mail, 70 percent reported their symptoms have disappeared — leaving about 60 people who continue to complain of ailments.

The Office of the Attending Physician is still monitoring some staff complaints resulting from the “aromatic carbon fumes” released by irradiated mail, Pickle told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch. He said the 200 figure represented the number of reported ailments for the first year of the irradiation process.

Mail sent via the U.S. Postal Service to Congress, the Supreme Court, the White House and federal agencies has been irradiated following the arrival of anthrax-tainted letters on Capitol Hill in October 2001.

Questions surrounding the safety of irradiated mail have continually surfaced on the Hill since staffers first began receiving it in early 2002. In January and February of that year, 131 staffers reported symptoms ranging from tingling fingers to bloody noses.

After the initial wave of complaints, the number of staffers reporting symptoms to the Attending Physician’s office plummeted, and the majority of the incidents reported in the ensuing months were dermatitis of the hands.

The physician’s office also did a follow-up survey in May and June 2002 of those who had originally reported illnesses associated with handling irradiated mail. Of the 131 people who had reported symptoms in the first quarter of the year, 15 percent either returned to the office for a follow-up or reported continuing symptoms. An unspecified number of staffers with persistent or severe cases were sent to their own physicians for follow-up care.

The level of irradiation was lowered in August, and Capitol officials attributed a decline in the number of staffers complaining of mail-related illnesses to the lower levels of irradiation applied to mail during treatment.

Another factor possibly contributing to the decreased complaints could be the longer “off-gassing” periods. Previously the mail was taken relatively quickly from radiation to be bundled in cellophane, but now there is a much longer time frame in which the mail is allowed to air out, preventing staffers from getting whiffs of the byproducts of the radiation, such as carbon monoxide.

Two studies examining the safety of irradiated mail came to different conclusions.

A study done by the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health concluded in April 2002 that of 10 contaminants that could potentially come from irradiated mail, none was detected in Capitol Hill buildings at levels known to cause health problems. The report was commissioned by the Legislative Mail Task Force, a bicameral entity set up to examine the safety of irradiated mail and the timeliness of mail delivery.

But a separate report released by the general counsel of the Office of Compliance in June 2002 found that handling irradiated mail for substantial periods may be the cause, or a contributing cause, of adverse health effects reported by legislative branch employees and recommended further study.

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