Peoria Journal Star

February 13, 2002

Irradiated mail arrives slowly, smelly 
Anthrax-sanitized letters take months to reach destination 


By DORI MEINERT 
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Steve Hawkins and Zack Preston, sophomores at East Peoria Community High School, weren't sure what to expect when they wrote their congressman last November as a class assignment. 

It's a good thing their grades weren't riding on a quick response. 

The letters - requesting federal funds for a skate park and four-wheeler track - only recently showed up at Rep. Ray LaHood's Washington office. 

Their missives arrived in the early batches of anthrax-sanitized mail, most of which is yellow and faded, as though they had traveled through a time warp from Lincoln's era. Letters postmarked as far back as October, when the anthrax scare first hit Capitol Hill, are only now making it to the intended
recipients. 

After anthrax-contaminated mail killed five people, including two Washington postal workers and made others ill, the U.S. Postal Service impounded the mail and sent it to two private facilities in Lima, Ohio, and Bridgeport, N.J., to be decontaminated by irradiation, a common way to sanitize medical equipment and food. 

With the perpetrator still at large, the Postal Service is still diverting letters sent to Capitol Hill, the White House or any federal agency for irradiation. 

The letters ultimately arrive faded and brittle, some breaking apart as they're opened. The plastic address windows are melted. The cooked ink glues the pages together creating a ripping sound as they're pulled apart. 

"They're just fried," said Jill Janovetz, 22, who opens mail for LaHood, a Republican. The Peoria native opened a card recently that said, "Happy Thanksgiving." 

"It comes in looking like 20-year-old mail," said Steve Vetzner, an aide to Rep. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island. 

The delays are causing frustration for Capitol Hill employees as well as constituents. 
 
"We had to call all the companies that bill us and give them a personal address," said Kelly Nettleton, 22, who opens mail for Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana. 

Aides to Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, had to Federal Express his military academy nominations to a Pentagon worker's home to ensure their timely arrival. 

And, as if anthrax wasn't enough to worry about, some staffers say the irradiated mail itself is making them ill. One of Sen. Dick Durbin's mail handlers recently complained of headaches, itchy hands and mild nausea after opening the treated mail. So have workers in other Senate offices, which handle greater volumes of mail than House offices do. 

Postal Service officials say there is no link between irradiated mail and health-related complaints. 

"It does have a bad smell that makes you want to turn your head. It smells like burnt glue," said Nettleton, a Saybrook, Ill., native. 

She doesn't wear gloves as some staffers do, and she hasn't experienced any of the adverse physical symptoms that some report. 

"But I do tend to wash my hands afterward," she said. 

"It's new to everyone dealing with this so, of course, we're not 100 percent comfortable with it," Nettleton said, adding she's confident officials will recommend the right course. 

When the mail was halted initially back in October, the congressional offices directed their constituents to mail letters to their district offices or to e-mail the Washington office. 

Several Illinois lawmakers reported a surge in the number of e-mail messages they receive since September. LaHood's office estimates that the e-mails have doubled since September. Durbin's staff also reports an increase in the proportion of e-mail messages received. The office used to receive three
strapped bundles of mail a day, but now gets only two smaller bundles daily, spokesman Joe Shoemaker said. 

Evans' office is receiving about 70 pieces of mail a day, slightly fewer than usual, but most of what's come in so far was mailed last fall. He still hasn't received letters mailed in January, Vetzner said. 

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald's office usually receives 5,000 individual letters, faxes, e-mail or phone messages a week, but that was cut in half since October, his spokesman Brian Stoller said. 

His advice for constituents: "Patience."