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[P]
Irradiate the mail

By delmoi in Op-Ed
Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 08:38:35 PM EST
Tags: etc (all tags)
/etc

I've seen some pretty ridiculous 'solutions' to the problem of Anthrax in the mail. Arcane and complex systems of identity guaranty of mail, Or possibly the end of mail entirely. I say, why not just treat mail with 'radiant energy' the way we do Meat? If you had to mail sensitive electronics or biological samples, you could get a 'no-IR' stamp for a little extra money and an identity check.

Any thoughts on the feasibility of this? Has anyone else suggested it? Would it work?


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Irradiate the mail | 33 comments (25 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
how about an iron? (4.12 / 8) (#1)
by mofospork on Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 09:43:04 PM EST

Arcane and complex systems of identity guaranty of mail, Or possibly the end of mail entirely. I say, why not just treat mail with 'radiant energy' the way we do Meat? If you had to mail sensitive electronics or biological samples, you could get a 'no-IR' stamp for a little extra money and an identity check.

How about just going over all your mail with a steam iron? I've heard that's supposed to kill anthrax.

Does not work. (3.50 / 2) (#3)
by Signal 11 on Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 09:49:12 PM EST

Throw it in bleach.. because heat ain't gonna kill it. Remember, the spores can remain dormant for years - weathering extreme environmental variations in temperature. The US military has fought for an efficient solution to disposing anthrax reserves, especially after it was discovered that the Russians had improperly disposed of some of their stores.

I can almost guarantee a mere iron is not going to do it.


--
Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.
[ Parent ]

from what I've heard (5.00 / 1) (#5)
by glenkim on Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 10:10:39 PM EST

In the news, there was something about this. From what I heard, heat alone will not kill Anthrax, but steam ironing will. When I read this, it was about somebody appearing before congress who presented this. Can anybody verify this?

[ Parent ]
Here is the link... (5.00 / 1) (#7)
by f00b4r on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 01:25:23 AM EST

I think this is the link you guys are refering to:
http://news1.iwon.com/article/id/176907|oddlyenough|10-17-2001::09:34|reuters.html

Basically it says anthrax can stand dry heat no problem, its the wet heat that kills it. I tend to agree, dry heat is much better than wet heat! heh.



[ Parent ]
of course (3.33 / 3) (#12)
by streetlawyer on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 06:46:31 AM EST

what is the mere word of an expert against the power of pure unadulaterated ass-talking?

In fact your "almost guarantee" is entirely wrong; spores can survive such conditions because they dry up. If they are subjected to steam heat, they can't remain dried up and are thus vulnerable to steam heat just like anything else.

HTH.

--
Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]

Oh, Hi Streetlawyer! (none / 0) (#18)
by Signal 11 on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 06:46:37 PM EST

Speaking of talking out of your ass, you seem to have done so again. I was right - if it's dry heat, anthrax will not be affected. As another reader pointed out: "Basically it says anthrax can stand dry heat no problem, its the wet heat that kills it. I tend to agree, dry heat is much better than wet heat! heh." So an iron, by itself, will not do the trick. The package has to be *steamed* - something the original poster did not mention, hence my post. There's always a fact or two that you miss, streetlawyer, which is why I find your posts so amusing.


--
Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.
[ Parent ]
Funny... (none / 0) (#19)
by FriedLinguini on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 07:32:58 PM EST

...I could have sworn the original post mentioned going over the mail with a steam iron...

[ Parent ]
RE: Funny... (none / 0) (#20)
by Signal 11 on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 07:54:46 PM EST

... that is the name of the device, yes... but you may observe that you must depress a button on most units to dispense water.


--
Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.
[ Parent ]
obviously (none / 0) (#24)
by Ender Ryan on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 09:36:06 PM EST

Obviously, you do not iron your own clothes, lucky you! ;-)

Seriously, Sig 11, 99% of irons do not require the depression of a button to produce steam. I have used many irons, and I have only ever seen 1 that required that.

You are probably confused with irons that have a button to squirt water, for getting out those really bad creases only God knows how they get there.

What I would give to never have to iron clothes again...


-
Exposing vast conspiracies! Experts at everything even outside our expertise! Liberators of the world from the oppression of the evil USian Empire!

We are Kuro5hin!


[ Parent ]

Unfortunately... (5.00 / 1) (#27)
by Signal 11 on Wed Oct 24, 2001 at 12:02:58 PM EST

Seriously, Sig 11, 99% of irons do not require the depression of a button to produce steam. I have used many irons, and I have only ever seen 1 that required that.

As usual, I fall into the 1% minority in society. :^) My iron, in fact, is designed in such a fashion...


--
Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.
[ Parent ]

hah (5.00 / 1) (#28)
by Ender Ryan on Wed Oct 24, 2001 at 01:50:37 PM EST

+5 for the middle class whiteboy who is a minority ;^)

I often feel like a minority, even though I am middle class, male, and white...

Guess I'm just weird...


-
Exposing vast conspiracies! Experts at everything even outside our expertise! Liberators of the world from the oppression of the evil USian Empire!

We are Kuro5hin!


[ Parent ]

1% (5.00 / 1) (#31)
by SPYvSPY on Thu Oct 25, 2001 at 10:35:31 AM EST

One percent of middle class white boys feel like minorities.
------------------------------------------------

By replying to this or any other comment in this thread, you assign an equal share of all worldwide copyright in such reply to each of the other readers of this site.
[ Parent ]

oh this is fucking priceless (1.00 / 5) (#25)
by streetlawyer on Wed Oct 24, 2001 at 01:57:02 AM EST

. I tend to agree, dry heat is much better than wet heat! heh." So an iron, by itself, will not do the trick. The package has to be *steamed*

Do they not have fucking steam irons where you come from then, laddie?

This is doubly fantastic as it reveals that you don't iron your clothes. This might be part of the reason that you're not a hit with the ladies. Even Eric Raymond agrees that personal grooming is important.

There's always a fact or two that you miss, streetlawyer, which is why I find your posts so amusing.

You're a complete fucking idiot, Siggy, which is why I find yours amusing.

--
Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]

A helpful article on the subject of ironing mail.. (none / 0) (#32)
by SPYvSPY on Thu Oct 25, 2001 at 01:18:29 PM EST

Despite the fact that this thread is littered with known trolls, I point you to: Ironing Out Anthrax.
------------------------------------------------

By replying to this or any other comment in this thread, you assign an equal share of all worldwide copyright in such reply to each of the other readers of this site.
[ Parent ]

No. (4.40 / 15) (#2)
by Signal 11 on Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 09:45:43 PM EST

It would only work for letter mail. Reasons irradiation would not work for regular mail:
  • CDs are often shipped in the mail. These can be damaged by irradiation. Case in point - throw one in a microwave for a few seconds. computer media also is often shipped via regular channels - almost always magnetic storage.
  • A wide variety of electronics which are sensitive to irradiation are routinely shipped via UPS, FedEx, and the USPS.
  • Irradiation cannot be done in an automated fashion, because a terrorist could simply wrap the agent in tin foil to bypass it. Thus, someone must be manning an x-ray station to ensure that any suspicious packages are opened and inspected.
  • Risks to postal workers - higher radiation levels in the workplace, etc.
  • Film is vulnerable to irradiation, and is often shipped via mail. A wide variety of other chemicals that are sensitive to radiation are also often shipped via the mail.
  • Anything with carbon-paper in it could be ruined, because the carbon would absorb massive amounts of the radiation, and heat up, transferring the carbon to the paper around it. Carbon-paper is used by large numbers of suits around the world.
  • Cost of equipment - not cheap. Consider the safety/training costs, extra manpower, etc., as well...

In short, implimenting this would mean a radical increase in the cost of a postage stamp, and require tens of thousands more workers to scan the mail. It is really only a viable option for sensitive areas, such as certain addresses in Washington DC... it would be totally unworkable for general use.


--
Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.

Earth to Siggy (5.00 / 13) (#6)
by sigwinch on Mon Oct 22, 2001 at 11:32:27 PM EST

From your other comment: I can almost guarantee a mere iron is not going to do it.
Heat kills bacillus anthracis spores. Boiling within IIRC 10 minutes, autoclaving within hours. B. anthracis isn't a particularly exotic bacterium, it just has a few genes that let it play nasty tricks on the human immune system. (It has surface proteins that let it evade macrophages, and a couple of nasty toxin proteins. Take away three genes and it becomes mostly innocuous, take away a dozen genes and it becomes totally boring and run-of-the-mill.)
CDs are often shipped in the mail. These can be damaged by irradiation. Case in point - throw one in a microwave for a few seconds.
Microwave ovens induce extremely large electric currents into the aluminum foil of CDs, vaporizing the foil through ohmic heating. Gamma radiation might harm CD-Rs by damaging the dyes, though.
Irradiation cannot be done in an automated fashion, because a terrorist could simply wrap the agent in tin foil to bypass it.
Gamma rays can easily penetrate millimeters of steel.
Risks to postal workers - higher radiation levels in the workplace, etc.
Shield the nuke source with many centimeters of steel. Food irradiators already do this.
Film is vulnerable to irradiation, and is often shipped via mail.
True. Sterilizing levels of gammas would wreak havoc with photographic emulsions.
Anything with carbon-paper in it could be ruined, because the carbon would absorb massive amounts of the radiation, and heat up, transferring the carbon to the paper around it. Carbon-paper is used by large numbers of suits around the world.
Radiation != comparatively low-frequency radio waves that induce large electric currents.
Cost of equipment - not cheap. Consider the safety/training costs, extra manpower, etc., as well...
Cost per letter would be extremely low. Industrial irradiators consist of a heavily-shielded enclosure with a conveyor belt running throw it. Inside the enclosure are several rods/plates that have been electroplated with a gamma ray-emitting element (such as activated cobalt-60). They cost a lot to build, but last many years with minimal ongoing costs.

That said, I agree irradiation of mail wouldn't work, but for different reasons:

  1. Lots of live materials are sent in the mails, from medical specimens to vegetable seeds. Killing them off would tend to be expensive and annoying.
     
  2. I suspect that many dyes and colorants would be slightly discolored by the radiation. Lots of things contain reactive/unstable chemicals that would fare somewhat poorly.
     
  3. Electron tunneling memories (flash memory, EPROMs, etc.) would probably be erased -- if not permanently damaged -- by sterilizing levels of ionizing radiation.
     
  4. Transistors are likely to be turned on by intense ionizing radiation. If they are under power at the time, they will tend to go up in flames. (Think lithium ion battery packs! Fwoosh!)
     
  5. Sterilizing a rapidly-moving conveyor belt of mail will require extremely high radiation fields. Mail that gets stuck inside the irradiator for a few minutes or hours will receive ludicrous amounts of radiation. *Paper* might be discolored.
     
  6. The high radiation field will tend to produce lots of ozone, nitrogen oxides, and other nasty chemically-active compounds. Processing plants will have to be carefully vented to eliminate the danger, and postal personnel will be exposed to higher levels of these compounds.
     
  7. Killer problem: attackers could put radiation-triggered bombs in the mail, which would activate inside the irradiator. It wouldn't be a major environmental disaster, but it would be bad for the postal employees, would contaminate a lot of mail irretrievably, and would contaminate the plant. Bombs might take the form of corrosives that would cause the radioactive material to flake off or otherwise mobilize, and not simple high explosives, which could result in release of insidious radioactive dust.

--
I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

RE: Earth to Siggy (none / 0) (#17)
by Signal 11 on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 06:43:33 PM EST

Heat kills bacillus anthracis spores. Boiling within IIRC 10 minutes, autoclaving within hours.

How does this contradict what I said about ironing not being sufficient? Boiling water is 100C, or 212F. An iron, momentarily contacting a piece of paper, on the other side of which is the bacterium might be lucky to be warmed to more than about 150F. Barring some radical changes in the laws of physics, I don't believe an iron has sufficient heating capability to protect you. Additionally, by compressing the package, you may be causing the bacteria to become airborne - forced out the sides, as has apparently happened to a postal worker recently. Ironing is a bad idea, period.

Microwave ovens induce extremely large electric currents into the aluminum foil of CDs, vaporizing the foil through ohmic heating.

Again, this does not contradict what I said about CDs - if there is sufficient energy to kill bacteria, there is going to be sufficient energy to destroy a CD! Not only that, but your solution of using gamma radiation to punch through metal is (by your own admission) flawed - because it'll damage the dye on the CDs.

Radiation != comparatively low-frequency radio waves that induce large electric currents.

Did I say it did?

Industrial irradiators consist of a heavily-shielded enclosure with a conveyor belt running throw it. Inside the enclosure are several rods/plates that have been electroplated with a gamma ray-emitting element (such as activated cobalt-60).

Safety considerations need to be taken into account here - such an enclosure does not prevent live animals, or people, from entering it. The principle cost is not in the equipment, it's in training personnel to use the equipment, and safety considerations. Plus, we have tens of thousands of post offices that process mail - all of them would need irradiation systems to effectively cover the United States, due to the way mail is routed. That's still a lot of money.

Lots of live materials are sent in the mails, from medical specimens to vegetable seeds. Killing them off would tend to be expensive and annoying.

Those are generally shipped via either courier service, or special delivery via normal channels. In all cases, by law, the package is required to have stated that it is biological, hazardous (if it is), and the contents. This is not a realistic risk. However, it does beg the question of how this could be workable in the private sector, considering there are a wide variety of methods of delivering packages - some of them would simply not be economical to have irradiation systems.

Transistors are likely to be turned on by intense ionizing radiation. If they are under power at the time, they will tend to go up in flames. (Think lithium ion battery packs! Fwoosh!)

It is illegal to ship a powered electronic device through the mail, per US DOT regulations. Batteries must be transported discharged, where possible. However, this doesn't mean people don't do it... but we don't have to worry about this on a large scale.

Killer problem: attackers could put radiation-triggered bombs in the mail, which would activate inside the irradiator. It wouldn't be a major environmental disaster, but it would be bad for the postal employees, would contaminate a lot of mail irretrievably, and would contaminate the plant. Bombs might take the form of corrosives that would cause the radioactive material to flake off or otherwise mobilize, and not simple high explosives, which could result in release of insidious radioactive dust.

Terrorists are unlikely to do this, especially considering the specialization required to accomplish such a feat, and the cost of aquiring such chemicals. It would be cheaper to have someone apply to work at the plant, and then place a bomb manually, or simply fly a plane into it. Your remaining concerns, however, I found to be good reasons to avoid deployment.


--
Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.
[ Parent ]

More on irradiation (5.00 / 1) (#23)
by sigwinch on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 08:47:10 PM EST

How does this contradict what I said about ironing not being sufficient?
Steam ironing would work. However the level of thoroughness required would probably destroy the mail. You'd essentially be boiling your mail. Inks would bleed and laser printer toners would melt and glue the paper together. It would 'work' in the same way that combustion would 'work'.
Again, this does not contradict what I said about CDs - if there is sufficient energy to kill bacteria, there is going to be sufficient energy to destroy a CD!
In terms of total energy, it doesn't take much ionizing radiation to kill most living cells. The long DNA chains are exceedingly fragile, and the reactive molecules produced by the radiation stimulate an inflammatory response that amplifies the damage. A dose that would kill a spore would cause almost unnoticeable damage to the aluminum and polystyrene of a CD.
Safety considerations need to be taken into account here - such an enclosure does not prevent live animals, or people, from entering it. The principle cost is not in the equipment, it's in training personnel to use the equipment, and safety considerations.
"Don't crawl inside." No different than any other large conveyor-fed machine, like the ovens that cook Oreos, or the grinders that turn trees into paper pulp.
It is illegal to ship a powered electronic device through the mail, per US DOT regulations. Batteries must be transported discharged, where possible.
The DOT only cares that there isn't enough stored energy to start a fire. There can easily be enough remaining energy to destroy the electronics. E.g., a mail order UPS may only ship with 15 seconds of runtime, but that's more than enough to fry all its transistors. And it only takes a few people mailing PDAs with Li-ion batteries to shut down the plant for a week.
Terrorists are unlikely to do this, especially considering the specialization required to accomplish such a feat, and the cost of aquiring such chemicals.
Detecting radiation that intense is trivial, as are the explosives. Besides which, an annoyance bomb (glue, spray paint, etc.) would be nearly as effective as an explosive, and available at any hardware store.

--
I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

Re: Earth to Siggy (5.00 / 1) (#30)
by nixman on Wed Oct 24, 2001 at 07:21:44 PM EST

[Microwave ovens induce extremely large electric currents into the aluminum foil of CDs, vaporizing the foil through ohmic heating. ]

Again, this does not contradict what I said about CDs - if there is sufficient energy to kill bacteria, there is going to be sufficient energy to destroy a CD!

microwave != gamma radiation

Not only that, but your solution of using gamma radiation to punch through metal is (by your own admission) flawed - because it'll damage the dye on the CDs.

Only on CD-Rs. Commercial CDs don't use dyes.

[ Radiation != comparatively low-frequency radio waves that induce large electric currents. ]

Did I say it did?

Yes, you did.

Safety considerations need to be taken into account here - such an enclosure does not prevent live animals, or people, from entering it. The principle cost is not in the equipment, it's in training personnel to use the equipment, and safety considerations.

There are lots of dangerous appliances in workplaces. Usually some sort of "Caution!" sign is sufficient.

Plus, we have tens of thousands of post offices that process mail - all of them would need irradiation systems to effectively cover the United States, due to the way mail is routed. That's still a lot of money.

There would have to be cost/benefit analysis to determine the which processing centers would get the equipment. My guess is that the largest couple of hundred processing centers cover about 95+% of the mail, and the other 5% would be local mail and more easily traced.

[ Transistors are likely to be turned on by intense ionizing radiation. If they are under power at the time, they will tend to go up in flames. (Think lithium ion battery packs! Fwoosh!) ]

It is illegal to ship a powered electronic device through the mail, per US DOT regulations. Batteries must be transported discharged, where possible. However, this doesn't mean people don't do it... but we don't have to worry about this on a large scale.

It doesn't have to be a powered device. Microwave a transister and it will turn on. Similar to holding a fluorescent tube under a power line.

[ Killer problem: attackers could put radiation-triggered bombs in the mail, which would activate inside the irradiator. It wouldn't be a major environmental disaster, but it would be bad for the postal employees, would contaminate a lot of mail irretrievably, and would contaminate the plant. Bombs might take the form of corrosives that would cause the radioactive material to flake off or otherwise mobilize, and not simple high explosives, which could result in release of insidious radioactive dust. ]

Terrorists are unlikely to do this, especially considering the specialization required to accomplish such a feat, and the cost of aquiring such chemicals.

This is easily within the capabilities of a decent chemistry undergrad.

[ Parent ]

Yeh (none / 0) (#26)
by delmoi on Wed Oct 24, 2001 at 03:08:44 AM EST

That's why I said you could get 'don't irradate' sticker if you paid more and submited to an identiy check.
--
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
[ Parent ]
Are you getting your radiation types mixed up? (none / 0) (#33)
by RichardJC on Fri Oct 26, 2001 at 07:48:37 AM EST

... or am I? Has anyone studied the effects of different types of radiation on different types of mail?

The type that normally effects floppy disks is electromagnetic radiation, or a changing or strong magnetic field would probably do. Tin foil is used to isolate things from such radiation by conducting it around it.

X-Ray machines, gamma radiation I assume, seem to shoot through reasonably thick metal plates without problem. At least an x-ray I had recently was taken through what looked like a metal box which held the film in the dark. This kind of radiation needs more heavy lead protection, for example the heavy lead skirt worn when having a standing chest x-ray.

Presumably the radiation in question would be like that used in radiotherapy, which can kill cells quite happily. IIRC this radiation is created by firing an electron beam at a suitable material, so a bomb in a facility wouldn't result in lots of radioactive material escaping as there's no radiactive material to escape.

Of course I'm not a physisist, or a doctor (I program computers), so all the above may be completely wrong

- Richard


[ Parent ]
The post office thought of this too... (5.00 / 1) (#10)
by robot138 on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 04:02:25 AM EST

Story here
The bit about irradiating the mail is halfway through, and not a direct quote, but they are looking into technology "similar to that used in the food-processing industry."
e.b.a.c
a.a.r.o
s.y.t.r
t._._.e

Yes (5.00 / 1) (#15)
by theR on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 08:52:17 AM EST

This is being discussed. Irradiation Explored As Answer to Anthrax.



*Patting myself on the back* (none / 0) (#16)
by ennui on Tue Oct 23, 2001 at 11:36:27 AM EST

I scooped all of you on this one, proof on Slashduh. This is a damn good idea, actually, and would be relatively cheap to implement compared to the tons of money on antibiotic regimens and federal agency time we're looking at otherwise.

There are a few technical problems. A major issue is you either have to do a prolonged exposure to low levels or quick exposure to high levels to be assured of killing most bacteria, and people are justifiably afraid of high levels of gamma radiation in their workplace. On the bright side, high speed xray devices already exist for letters, and it's probably just a matter of souping them up (so to speak) to make them effective in destroying biological agents.

"You can get a lot more done with a kind word and a gun, than with a kind word alone." -- Al Capone
What about living things? (3.00 / 2) (#29)
by Hillman on Wed Oct 24, 2001 at 05:44:46 PM EST

Like lab samples, various spores, seeds, etc.

Irradiate the mail | 33 comments (25 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
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