Mail Safety: What Do You Think?

Postal Service should seek public's views on mail safeguards, scientist says

THURSDAY, Feb. 21, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Irradiating the mail will kill anthrax spores and any other bioterrorism agent. However, it could also discolor glass, cloud camera film, make paper brittle, damage plastics and change the taste of foods sent by parcel post.

H. Keith Florig, a senior research scientist with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says the U.S. Postal Service should ask your opinion about irradiation and other methods of making the mail safe before it decides on a course of action. That decision is expected later this month.

"The basic problem is that any mail-safety technology involves money, unions, privacy endangerment and possible damage to the mail," Florig says in a paper in tomorrow's issue of Science.

"There are also negative safety implications, as in the case of possible exposure to workers of gases that come off irradiated mail," he adds. "Having to weigh the advantages against the disadvantages is really a value judgment. In addition, who is the most legitimate judge of the value trade-off? Is it postal officials or the general public?"

The public should judge, Florig says.

"While postal officials should provide expert opinion on the cost of technologies and implications of postal operations, they should not be the ones who decide how much inconvenience, or invasion of privacy or damage is worth trading for safety," he says.

It would be easy enough to gauge public opinion, using well-established methods, Florig adds.

"The postal authorities, or whatever agency is in charge, can set up some service where a lay person sits in a room and is presented with the facts in a systematic way," he says. "Gathering this kind of information could cost as little as $100,000. If you install safety technologies in all 330 regional postal centers, you are talking about many millions of dollars in public investment. It is a no-brainer to include the broadest spectrum of opinion in that decision."

China and some Latin American countries inspect packages before they are sealed, Florig says. However, "in the United States, such an intrusive procedure would surely raise privacy concerns that citizens might or might not consider to be worth the added security."

Public opinion was consulted, sort of, when federal lawmakers recently approved funding to safeguard the mails, Florig says.

"But those debates are rarely systematic and structured, so information about how mail customers or taxpayers think about trade-offs doesn't become available," he says.

The most visible Postal Service action since Sept. 11 was to irradiate mail bound for federal agencies in Washington, D.C., in the wake of the anthrax-by-mail terror campaign. Irradiating all the mail is impractical, says Jerry Kreinkamp, a Postal Service spokesman, because of cost and other considerations.

In December, Postmaster General Jack Potter asked Congress to appropriate $1.1 billion for mail-safety measures. It came through with $500 million, and the Postal Service now is deciding how to spend that money, Kreinkamp says.

"We will present a detailed plan on how the money will be spent some time this month," he says. "It will include some irradiation equipment, detection equipment, masks for postal workers. The work is in a prototype stage."

There are no plans to ask the public what it wants, Kreinkamp says.

What To Do: Anyone who wants to express an opinion about mail safety can contact the U.S. Postal Service. Go here to learn more about what's being done to make the mail more safe.

SOURCES: Interviews with H. Keith Florig, senior research scientist, department of engineering and public policy, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh; Jerry Kreinkamp, spokesman, U. S. Postal Service, Washington, D.C., Feb. 22, 2002, Science
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