Mail Irradiation

It’s been seven years since the first, last, and only series of anthrax (or other chemical- or biological-agent) mailings through the U.S. mail; it’s been seven months since the prime suspect in those incidents committed suicide. You probably don’t think about it a whole lot anymore, but the USPS undoubtedly does, in part because they’re still irradiating mail, in a fairly arbitrary, random, and probably pointless process.

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether a piece of mail has been irradiated; if you don’t know what to look for, most of the signs are fairly easy to miss. Sometimes, though, they’re damned hard to overlook, as I recently discovered…

These are two letters sent to me, at the same address, on the same date, from the same person in Washington, DC. They were, as you can see, sent through the “franking” machine one after another – just look at the last digits of the serial number, partially obscured in blue for privacy reasons. The top envelope is white; the bottom one is a dingy cream color. Yet, they both started out white – the bottom one – outgoing mail from Washington, DC – was irradiated.

What’s that big black area on the irradiated envelope? The address label, printed on a thermal printer, which are cheap and efficient, but, um, don’t mix well with the heat produced by irradiating mail.

This is a better look at the effect irradiation has; one of the other most obvious side-effects is that paper becomes incredibly brittle and fragile – the irradiated envelope, and its contents, are practically crumbling apart, while the non-irradiated example survived it’s cross-country trip basically unscathed.

I really have my doubts about the cost-effectiveness of mail irradiation, as I suspect many people do. Even more confusing, however, is the apparently arbitrary and capricious nature in which it’s administered – these two letters were sent by a government agency in the District of Columbia on the same date, probably literally moments apart, and were delivered together to the same address here in Minnesota. Somewhere along the way, however, one got baked in a giant microwave, and one didn’t. If that was somehow supposed to make me safer, I don’t really see that it worked. If it was supposed to make me feel safer, I think we can call that one a bust, as well.

Harnessing the power of the atom to ensure safety and confidence in the country’s postal system: it’s a mystery to me…

Published in: 'D' for 'Dumb', Geekiness, General, Security | on March 9th, 2009| Comments Off on Mail Irradiation

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