A high school student who showed in a science fair project that using a clothes iron on mail can kill anthrax-like spores inside — without damaging the contents of the envelope — will have that research published later this year.
Marc Roberge, 17, a senior at Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, decided to experiment on the issue after discussing his father's work as a medical toxicologist for the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention office in the Pittsburgh suburb of South Park. His research will appear in the Journal of Medical Toxicology in June.
"He's just 17. I was 35 before I had my first publication," said Raymond Roberge, Marc's father, and an expert on biological agents.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, subsequent anthrax attacks in the mail killed five and injured 17 later that fall.
A germ warfare specialist from the former Soviet Union told a Congressional committee in October 2001 that a hot steam iron could be used to kill anthrax spores.
During a interview several months later, Raymond Roberge said high heat could kill anthrax, but he didn't know if an iron would work.
Marc Roberge didn't use anthrax in his experiments, which he performed at home and at school.
"The government might have had a problem with that," Marc told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, referring to the toxic and highly regulated substance.
Instead, he used another kind of bacterial spore from the anthrax family that is more heat-resistant than anthrax, and which scientists use as a surrogate for anthrax in their experiments.
Marc put paper strips with millions of spores inside envelopes, then ironed them at various settings for up to 15 minutes.
His findings: An iron adjusted to the highest setting, about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, killed all the spores if they were ironed for at least five minutes.
"When the anthrax attacks happened, I thought, 'There's got to be a way to stop this,'" Marc said. "I just never thought it would be so easy."
As a bonus, ironing the letters didn't cause them to open up prematurely, and it didn't make pen-written words illegible.
Marc conducted the experiments as part of a science project for his advanced placement biology course. He performed the experiments at home and at school.
Bioterrorism expert Michael Allswede, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said people shouldn't routinely iron their mail.
"But should there be another threat like the anthrax attacks in 2001, it would be one of the techniques that could be used by regular people," Allswede said.