Congressional investigators reported this week that mail irradiation might be making some congressional employees ill. It’s a conclusion not backed up by any scientifically derived data and analysis.
The congressional Office of Compliance concluded that "handling irradiated mail for substantial periods of time may be the cause, or a contributing cause, of adverse health symptoms reported by a significant number of Legislative Branch employees."
Irradiation of congressional mail began last November after the anthrax letter attacks. It was the initial use of irradiation to eradicate anthrax spores from mail. Irradiated mail was first delivered to congressional offices in January 2002.
Numerous employees soon began complaining of minor and transient symptoms such as headaches, nausea, nose bleeds, rashes, dry throat, and eye and skin irritation — and linking the symptoms to the irradiated mail.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, requested an investigation by the Office of Compliance, noting that "Irradiating the mail was and is a big experiment."
The Office of Compliance sent information requests to 14,000 House and Senate employees. Less than 2 percent (215) responded. Of these 215 employees, only 148 responded to an immediate follow-up telephone interview. A few more responded to a subsequent follow-up interview.
Among the 215 respondents: 51 percent claimed experiencing headaches when handling the mail; 32 percent said their skin itched; 23 percent claimed burning and red eyes; 21 percent said they experienced nausea; 15 percent said they developed a visible rash; and 11 percent said they developed bloody noses.
During follow-up interviews, 72 percent of the respondents claimed to still be experiencing symptoms, with 37 percent reporting symptoms when opening the mail; 25 percent reported their symptoms were improving; 3 percent said they were getting worse; and 35 percent said they were the same.
Sampling for air contaminants was also conducted.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health measured the air in 10 Capitol Hill buildings for contaminants that could possibly come from irradiated mail, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, ozone, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, toluene and particulate matter.
NIOSH found the sampled substances were either not detected or were found at levels below those known to cause health problems.
Case closed? Hardly. The Office of Compliance recommended more research despite acknowledging, "We do not have sufficient information at this time to reach any final conclusion on the specific cause or causes of such symptoms, or whether there is a serious risk from extended periods of mail handling under existing working conditions."
But why waste time and resources on more research?
This situation smacks of such scientifically elusive syndromes as "multiple chemical sensitivity" and Gulf War syndrome. MCS-ers and Gulf War syndrome-ers claim that chemical smells and exposures cause a wide variety of low-grade symptoms, almost exactly the same as those claimed by the Capitol Hill mail handlers.
But MCS and Gulf War syndrome have never been proven to exist as genuine conditions — much less be caused by chemical exposures. The best explanation seems to be that the origins of MCS and Gulf War syndrome complaints are psychological in nature.
In addition to air sampling, NIOSH also conducted interviews with employees who claimed symptoms from handling irradiated mail. NIOSH concluded that the cause of the complaints was likely due to multiple factors, including "heightened awareness and resultant employee stress from recent terrorist attacks."
There can be no doubt that Capitol Hill mail handlers labored under stressful conditions in the aftermath of the anthrax attacks. Such stress could easily cause the complained-of symptoms — if they really occurred as described to investigators.
None of the reported symptoms, after all, were medically verified or physically linked with mail handling.
The Office of Compliance recommends medical study of employees who "display continued symptoms from handling mail," another workplace exposure assessment and research into the physical and chemical properties of irradiation mail.
It sounds like something that could take years and cost millions of dollars — when all that’s probably really need is some employee counseling.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).