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Shipments to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Linda Ward Ward.Linda at NMNH.SI.EDU
Thu Nov 29 16:56:29 EST 2001

Notice about shipments to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

This is an announcement that our administration has asked us to send out 
to our colleagues to let them know what is going on with shipments to and 
from the Smithsonian.  As if the various permit issues hasn't made our life 
complicated enough. Linda  


As you are well aware, postal service in the D.C. area has been disrupted 
by the response to anthrax-laden letters. The Smithsonian, like other 
Federal agencies and offices in the area, received and sent all mail 
through the Brentwood facility. Concerns about anthrax and other possible 
agents of bioterrorism have prompted plans for irradiation of mail for the 
safety of handlers and recipients. Concerns about incoming and outgoing 
mail, including packages with museum specimens and/or photographic or 
magnetic media, are shared across the SI and the NMNH.  

This memo is an advisory update on the current situation as we understand 
it, based on technical information provided by the Smithsonian Center for 
Materials Research and Education, as well as by the SI Office of Facilities 
and Engineering and the U. S. Postal Service. Given that outside events 
could cause a change at any time in postal policies and procedures, we 
ask you to read the information below carefully.  

We understand that this is a very stressful time and thank you for your 
patience, calmness and flexibility in responding to these outside changes.  

I. Summary of current postal situation

Anthrax-bearing mail was first noted in the DC area in mid-October. The 
response was immediate: the Brentwood facility was closed and isolated, 
mail deliveries in the DC area were curtailed; and mail then at Brentwood 
was seized and transported to Ohio for sterilization by irradiation. Federal 
agency mail arriving at Brentwood since that seizure has been isolated at 
Brentwood. Since that time, four weeks ago, first-class mail delivery to 
Federal agencies and offices has not resumed (though DC residential and 
commercial deliveries that can be directed through suburban post offices 
have resumed). For the SI alone, that backlog is estimated at 20,000 
pieces per day.  

At the moment, the best information we have indicates that all mail shipped 
either to or from the SI between 15 October and 31 October is most likely 
held up in the backlog. Backlog material will almost certainly have been 
irradiated by the time it reaches its destination. Since 1 November, 
outgoing mail from the SI should have reached its destination normally 
(through the use of suburban post offices), but incoming first-class mail is 
still not being delivered.  

ACTION: We ask that you contact anyone at the SI to whom you have 
shipped material, or from whom you were expecting material, in the time 
frame of 15 October to 15 November, and find out what has not arrived at 
its intended destination. Please keep us posted  on shipments that do not 

II. Irradiation and the USPS
The USPS sent the following memo on 19 November: 

Dear Government Mail Customer:

On Monday, November 19, the Washington, DC post office begins 
delivering federal government mail that has been irradiated at a Lima, Ohio 

The irradiation process is safe, but can affect certain products sent 
through the mail.  Although it is unlikely that the treated mail now being 
delivered contains any of the following products, if received, they should be 
discarded and replacements obtained:  

Any biological sample, blood, fecal, etc., could be rendered useless 
Diagnostic kits, such as those used to monitor blood sugar levels, could be 
adversely affected Photographic film will be fully exposed Food will be 
adversely affected Drugs and medicines could have efficacy and safety 
affected Eyeglasses and contact lenses could be adversely affected 
Electronic devices would likely be rendered inoperable  

While the first pieces of irradiated mail being delivered are First-Class 
Letters, over time, departments and agencies will also be receiving flats 
(larger envelopes) and packages.  It is more likely that the items listed 
above would be contained in flats or packages.  Mail that has been 
irradiated includes First-Class letters postmarked since October 12 and 
addressed to Washington, DC government customers with ZIP Codes 
beginning with 202-205.  

The irradiation process used at the Lima facility was tested and found to be 
effective by an interagency team of scientific experts that recommended 
release of the mail for delivery.  The group was organized by the White 
House Office of Science and Technology Policy and included the Armed 
Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, the Food and Drug Administration, 
the Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Standards and 


original signed by:
Thomas G. Day
Vice President, Engineering
United States Postal Service

If you have not yet seen the analysis of irradiation issues and concerns 
prepared by SCMRE, you can get a copy online at 

In brief, SCMRE identifies the following risks posed by irradiation of 
organic and inorganic materials at the dosages suggested by the USPS:  

Living specimens (including seeds and gametes) will be killed. 

Cellulosic materials will be seriously affected, with the risk of embrittlement, 
discoloration and oxidation. This affects paper (including labels) and other 
plant-based materials as well as botanical specimens.  

Proteinaceous materials may be affected in similar ways, though perhaps 
not to the same extent. This affects anything made from or containing skin, 
chitin, feathers, hair or fur, or comparable products.  

DNA is particularly at risk. Materials sent out for genetic analysis will be 
severely compromised, with the risk of both recombination and outright 

Discoloration and fading will occur in a wide range of materials, from 
textiles to specimens to photographs.  

Glass and mineral specimens may also be discolored. 

Containers themselves may be adversely affected. Rubber and plastic 
seals and stoppers may become embrittled.  

Magnetic media will probably lose significant information contact, and 
undeveloped photographic film will be exposed.  

Some heating of materials may result, which can cause problems with 
preservative solutions and with adhesives.  

Mitigation through shielding in the mail enclosure itself is not practical.  

There is no apparent risk to the recipient from residual radiation, however. 
The principal risks are to the integrity and stability of the materials being 
shipped and irradiated.  

The units being purchased by the USPS for irradiation of mail are linear 
electron accelerators, used industrially for sterilization of food. USPS has a 
short statement at http://www.kodak.com/US/en/corp/about 
Kodak/sanitize.shtml. The first of these units will be installed in the DC 
area, most likely at Brentwood, as early as next month. We are certain that 
all incoming mail will be irradiated, but are not sure if outgoing mail will also 
be treated. At the moment, the plan is to irradiate flat mail (e.g. letters), not 
packages. That obviously could change in response to a threat or incident. 
A package irradiated on two sides would receive, logically, a double 

There are no provisions at this time for exempting museum-bound 
shipments or for marking materials that have been irradiated by the USPS. 
However, the Smithsonian Institution is continuing a dialogue with the U. S. 
Postal Service on possible alternatives. There is some discussion in the 
medical community about seeking ways to handle mail order medication, 
mailing of medical test specimens, and living and genetic materials without 
placing them at risk. We are requesting any and all guidelines produced 
for this purpose.  

In light of this, our procedures for handling loans and exchanges must be 
reviewed. Note that this problem is currently unique to the DC area but will 
in all likelihood become national as the planned 8-20 irradiation units are 
installed at key centers nationwide. There are several approaches that 
should be considered:  

Immediate curtailment of mail-based specimen, artifact, photographic and 
magnetic media shipments. We recommend that all but the most critical 
shipments to NMNH be limited until the scope of the irradiation protocol  is 
better known.  In addition, scientifically and culturally significant holdings 
should not be sent into the DC area via USPS at this time. This is 
especially advisable for tissue samples and other genetic-resource 
specimens and for magnetic and unexposed photographic material.  

Use of overnight services rather than USPS

Currently, Federal Express does not have plans for irradiation or any other 
sterilization methods. For critically important shipments, Federal Express 
remains an option. It is more cost-intensive. Please bear in mind that there 
will be no extra  additions to our budgets for these services and that we also 
cannot cover the costs incurred by outside colleagues. In addition, this 
policy could change if there is a threat or incident aimed at or using these 

Electronic image sharing

If images can be sent electronically to the same purpose, we encourage 
that (recognizing that this is a very limited solution in several departments).  

Encouragement of on-site visits in lieu of loans

When this is possible, please consider visiting the NMNH rather than 
entrusting collections to the mail, and bear in  mind that NMNH staff may 
need to visit your collections in person in lieu of receiving them here.  

Encouragement of hand-carry transactions

Again, when this is possible, please bring rather than ship materials. 
Please note that there are new limits on both the amount and the type of 
materials that can be carried aboard an airplane. We strongly recommend 
that hand-carry loans be cleared with all affected airlines prior to 
departure. Some commonly carried specimens, such as pinned insects, 
have been banned in some instances due to the concern over sharp 

Extension of loans

For materials which are not in urgent demand, it may be best at this time to 
extend loan terms for materials currently either in-house or offsite for at 
least another six months, and so avoid shipping concerns altogether. 
Please work with your colleagues on this so that everyone concerned 
knows that such materials will not be shipped on the dates originally 

We will continue to keep you posted as we get updated information from 
the USPS. This is a challenging time and there is no way to completely 
undo the effect that all this will have on loan and other collections shipment 
activities. Thank you for your positive and helpful responses to this 

Sally Y. Shelton
Collections Officer
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC   20560-0107
phone (202) 786-2601, FAX (202) 786-2328
email Shelton.Sally at nmnh.si.edu

List owner, PERMIT-L

Ms. Linda A. Ward
Department of Systematic Biology
Invertebrate Zoology
Museum of Natural History
10th St. and Constitution Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20560-0163

fax: (202)357-3043

email: ward.linda at nmnh.si.edu

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