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
National Museum of Natural History
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
Museum of Natural History
10th St. and Constitution Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20560-0163
email: ward.linda at nmnh.si.edu
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