Notification regarding loans to Smithsonian NMNH

Sally Shelton Shelton.Sally at NMNH.SI.EDU
Wed Nov 28 14:38:48 CST 2001

This memo is an advisory to colleagues concerned about the shipment of specimens and artifacts to and from the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Please respond to the address at the end of this memo, not to this list. Updates will be posted as needed. Thank you for your patience and concern. 

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 arrive. 

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 facility. 

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 Technology.


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 destruction. 

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 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 dosage. 

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 services. 

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 objects. 

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 scheduled. 

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 problem. 

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

List owner, PERMIT-L

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