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The Zapper - Irradiated mail and autographed items

JMS1223JMS1223 Posts: 1,097 ✭✭✭✭✭

As some of you probably know all First Class Mail going to the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court is subjected to irradiation. This has been going on since late 2001 after the anthrax scare.

Irradiation causes damage to paper and other items. It makes paper brittle and yellowed/browned. When items get irradiated they are exposed to extreme radiation that no living thing could survive. As part of the process items have to withstand extreme heat too. This process ages and degrades whatever passes through it.

Irradiation only happens to incoming mail so you will only notice damage to items if you send something to be signed. If you request something and they send it to you, it will not get irradiated. One other thing is if you send your request Priority Mail it also will not get irradiated (unless it’s going to the White House) but it cost $10 to send a Priority Mail envelope.

A few months ago I was browsing eBay and came across a thrice signed Supreme Court Chambers Card. I was amazed someone was able to get it signed by the first three woman Justices. The card looked curious because it was generic and did not have a Justice’s name on it so I decided to ask the seller about it. It turned out the original recipient sent a request to one Justice first, got their Chambers Card and decided to send it to a second Justice. This time the requester had to send it ttm to the Supreme Court and therefore got zapped by irradiation. The second Justice signed the card and sent it back. The card was a bit brittle and aged by the screening process but the recipient felt like it was okay so they sent it to the third Justice. By the time the third Justice got the card already signed by two, it failed to survive the second dose of irradiation. As a result the third Justice decided to get a new card and had the other two sign it and then she signed it. Unfortunately I do not have a picture of the original damaged card to show for illustration. The new card had never been zapped since it got sent from the Supreme Court already signed by the three Justices.

This got me very interested in seeing what kind of damage irradiation does to photos and other paper items one might send to get signed. Since Clarence Thomas is very good about signing ttm I decided to browse his signed items to see if I noticed any irradiated and damaged items. A few things I noticed is professional photos will sometimes discolor and turn purplish in spots while other times they will not as can be seen in my picture below. I also noticed some crazing on professional photos if you examine them up close. Of course the yellowing can be seen on the backs of photos pretty easily. Another thing that also sometimes happens is when sending two or more photos the heat from the irradiation will sometimes cause the photos to stick together which causes paper pulls in some spots on the photos.

I then noticed a couple of index cards with clipped corners. I am guessing someone clips part of each envelope being screened and tests the paper for pathogens. I believe this is another screening process the mail gets subjected to in addition to the irradiation. If the index cards are not near the corner of mailing envelope then they survive getting clipped. I have also seen photos with clipped corners.

I am fascinated by the idea of the twice or more zapped items. I know it must be rare for someone to send an item for signature, get it zapped signed and returned then decide to send it to a second person and have it get that second deadly dose. The problem is most people would never attempt this since items barely survive one zap. If an item got zapped twice the signer may not return it to requester due it being too damaged and instead send a new item signed by the same signers. So the requester may never have the opportunity to see that twice zapped damaged item. I would absolutely love to see the type of damage a paper item gets from two zaps and if I could experiment with the zapper myself I would run it through a third time and see how many times I would have to run it through until it completely turned to dust.

Just a few thoughts I had that I thought I would share. I hope you have something to add about items you once sent to someone that got subjected to irradiation and if you noticed any degradation in the paper/color/ink of your item. Sometimes damage cannot be seen in taking pictures and can only be noticed in person by handling item such as the brittleness. Thanks for reading.


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    JBKJBK Posts: 14,759 ✭✭✭✭✭

    A very interesting (and important) discussion.

    Recently I got a success from a Supreme Court Justice. They used their own envelope but returned my SASE.

    The upper left corner of the SASE had a chunk taken out if it. It might have been done with a blade but because the cut is slightly curved I suspect a sort of fast-rotating grinder was used to open the corner of my original envelope.

    I believe/suspect that the creation of a small opening in the envelopes either assists with irradiation, or is used in conjunction with a gas decontamination process, or assists with any sort of sensors they might use to detect certain harmful substances.

    (There is also a chance that the opening at a corner allows them to easily insert a letter opener but i don't think that's the purpose.)

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    JMS1223JMS1223 Posts: 1,097 ✭✭✭✭✭

    The thing that is interesting is NOT all returned SASEs or other materials have the corner clipped, just some.

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    JBKJBK Posts: 14,759 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Yes, I agree. I assume it was positioned in the corner of the outer envelope when it was cut. Luckily the item I sent to be signed was not damaged.

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    JMS1223JMS1223 Posts: 1,097 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I am curious what zapped newspaper would look like. Would it look like newspaper that’s aged like 50 years or just get a little toned?

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    JBKJBK Posts: 14,759 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I would think toned at least. Not sure if it would get brittle as well.

    I try to stay away from autographs on newsprint due to the acidity.

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    JMS1223JMS1223 Posts: 1,097 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @JBK said:

    I try to stay away from autographs on newsprint due to the acidity.

    Totally agree but was curious nonetheless how it would look irradiated. On a somewhat unrelated note, I saw a framed up moon landing original newspaper signed by Neil Armstrong for sale and thought if someone displayed that in direct sunlight it would quickly deteriorate.

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    JBKJBK Posts: 14,759 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited June 12, 2022 7:49AM

    It is possible to deacidify paper but I doubt most people who frame items seek out that process. :/

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    JMS1223JMS1223 Posts: 1,097 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited June 12, 2022 10:31AM

    I found some very relevant information online about irradiated mail:

    “ The U. S. Postal Service has announced that it is irradiating the following types of mail with postage stamps that are addressed to specific Government offices in Zip Codes 20200 through 20599:

    First-class business and letter-size envelopes and flats
    Express and Priority mail
    Other packages.
    Mail with postage meter strips and mail that is insured, registered, or certified are not irradiated.

    Currently, all mail directed to the White House, Congress, and the Library of Congress is being irradiated.

    Evidence of irradiation includes weakened or discolored (yellowed) envelopes, visibility of adhesive through the paper, and transfer of inks.

    How does irradiation affect mail?

    In the process of irradiation, the mail is exposed to extreme heat. Paper is weakened and may appear to have been aged, with discoloration (e.g., yellowing), and brittleness. Pages may break, crumble, or fuse to other pages. Documents bound with glue may have loose pages. The printing on pages may be distorted or offset onto adjacent pages. If the tape is affixed to address labels, the address may be illegible.

    Materials other than paper may also be affected. Plastics and inks may melt and fuse. Irradiation can affect such enclosures as photographic films, transparencies, and prints; compact disks, audio cassettes, and electronic, digital, and magnetic media; compact disk jewel cases; and credit cards.”

    From: https://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/faqs/irradiated-mail.html


    I also found this:

    “ The response of the Post Office to the anthrax problem has been the electron irradiation of select portions of the mail. The mail is packaged in sealed plastic to a thickness of over 3 inches and irradiated in two passes. Sufficient examples of the irradiated mail have been examined to permit some observations.

    Color Changes

    The irradiated mail exhibits definite yellowing, and this has been quantified by Lab* measurements of irradiated material. The color shift is not necessarily immediate and can occur over time. This indicates that the initial irradiation induces the formation of unstable intermediates, such as peroxides, that continue to breakdown after the irradiation process is over. Common inks present on irradiated papers do not seem to change color although the study is still ongoing.

    Mechanical Damage

    According to postal sources, temperatures of the irradiated materials can reach 130 C. High temperatures have been confirmed, for example, by the extreme distortion of polystyrene slide mounts. The softening temperature of polystyrene is about 110 C. The clear windows of some envelopes are polystyrene and these too have been found to have exhibited softening and distortion, in some cases adhering to the printed matter beneath. Certain printed materials have become stuck together, possibly due to the softening of the resins in the printing inks or photocopying toner. Moisture driven from the paper by high temperature can also condense and cause "blocking". Images on slides have been found to crack due to the high temperatures.

    Tensile measurements on irradiated paper show that there is a substantial loss in the ability of the paper to be deformed. This loss of extensibility has been as high as 80% and the resulting brittleness is severe. At this point the paper will not sustain being folded over. Analyses of the soluble material in irradiated and unirradiated samples of the same paper show an increase in the amounts of degradation products. The distribution of products is very different from that seen in naturally aged materials. The amount of glucose, specifically, is not greatly increased. This shows that the damage is due to reactions other than hydrolysis, which is the primary reaction during the natural aging of cellulose. The relatively small amounts of soluble degradation products probably do not account for the large loss of strength observed, indicating that the changes are most likely due to radiation induced crosslinking. Such reactions have serious implications for the effects of irradiation on biological specimens. For example, crosslinking would severely hinder any DNA analyses.

    Stress-strain curves for Whatman #1 paper irradiated to 257 kGy, a Smithsonian Institution envelope irradiated to 257 kGy, and a business envelope irradiated at the postal facility along with their control curves are presented here. The common elements to be seen are that the irradiated samples have become damaged to the point of losing strength, have not become stiffer, but have lost a significant portion of their plastic region. The irradiated specimens, notably the envelopes, have become embrittled to where they could not be folded over.”

    https://www.si.edu/mci/english/research/consulting/irridiate_exam.html

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    JBKJBK Posts: 14,759 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited June 12, 2022 5:04PM

    I would not be surprised If the mandatory security measures in place for the White House and Congress were extended to the Supreme Court.

    In any case, I guess Post Office generated postage strips are the way to go for sending photos, etc.

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    JMS1223JMS1223 Posts: 1,097 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Found some 4x6 photos that got the corner clipped treatment during irradiation. However the photos don’t appear to have changed color. If I could see these up close in person I am sure I would find the backs yellowed and the photos with some deterioration (cracking or spots up close).

    Side note: These are from that same seller who KEEPS sending Thomas ttm requests only to sell them (last 4x6 photo he sold for almost $30). :'(

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    JBKJBK Posts: 14,759 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I hate sellers like that. :|

    If I were sending 4x6 photos I'd send a larger envelope to hopefully avoid the corner cuts.

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    JMS1223JMS1223 Posts: 1,097 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Remember you can avoid the Zapper by sending your items Priority Mail or bringing them into post office to get meter postage instead of stamps. They don’t zap First Class Mail going to Supreme Court or Congress if it has a meter strip instead of stamps. However sending to the White House will get zapped no matter what.

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