13. GERM WARFARE TOXINS ROUTINELY SENT THROUGH THE U.S. MAIL

The U.S. military, federal agencies, and private research labs have routinely sent germ-warfare toxins and other hazardous biological materials throughout the United States by unregistered mail.

At a Congressional hearing, on June, 24, 1988, the Postal Service, in response to critics of the policy, proposed a ban on sending disease-carrying biological materials through the mail.

Controversy over the shipments began when the Army proposed building a laboratory for testing lethal biowarfare agents at Dugway in Utah where such agents would be shipped to and from some 103 research laboratories throughout the country. The Army had been shipping an average of 50 deadly toxins, including genetic mutations and viruses, each year from its Fort Detrick, Maryland, lab.

Postal officials testified at the hearing that workers are not trained in how to handle potentially harmful biological agents or how to respond in the event of a leak. "The only way we find out whether a given shipment is properly labeled and packaged is when it breaks," said Moe Biller, president of the American Postal Workers Union.

Also testifying before Congress, Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation On Economic Trends, which had petitioned for a ban similar to that proposed, warned that "Deadly biological pathogens including yellow fever, the plague, Crimea-Congo fever, ebola virus, botulism and anthrax are being shipped through private carriers and the postal service without adequate safety regulations."

Rifkin added that "In labs, viruses are contained by steel, glass, gloves, and masked workers. Yet those same materials are transmitted through the mail in only vials and watertight containers."

According to post office officials, the ban will not cover vials containing medically diagnostic material, such as blood and urine samples for AIDS testing.

When the proposed rule by the Postal Service becomes final, private carriers are expected to take over most of the shipping of hazardous biological materials.

SOURCES:

THE WASHINGTON POST, 6/24/89, "Ban on Mailing Germs to Be Proposed," by Laurie M. Grossman; News Release by the FOUNDATION ON ECONOMIC TRENDS, 6/24/89, by Jeremy Rifkin.