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'Should I Iron My Mail to Prevent Anthrax?'

September 17, 2001 (with updates)

Dear Urban Legends

Yesterday I received an email that said: If you are suspicious about mail you receive containing anthrax, you could render the anthrax bacteria harmless by ironing the envelope. This is supposed to be the practice of someone's mother-in-law who lives in Kyrgyzstan. I suspect this to be a hoax, as I haven't heard about it from any news media or medical professional.

Dear Reader:

Well, I can confirm for you that it's no hoax, but whether or not ironing your mail is really a good idea is another question.

According to news reports, highly regarded bioterrorism expert Ken Alibek (once in charge of germ warfare research for the former Soviet Union and now living in the United States) testified at a Congressional hearing on October 16 that people who are afraid their mail may be contaminated with anthrax can use a steam iron to disinfect it.

"If you are scared," he said, "just iron this letter. After that, they (anthrax spores) become harmless."

Alternatively, you can use your microwave oven. But, Alibek said, that's less reliable because dry heat isn't as effective against the spores as wet heat.

Not to challenge an expert opinion, but I feel obliged to point out that Mr. Alibek's recommendations run counter to what U.S. government agencies advise, namely to sequester any suspicious letters or packages — handling them as little as possible — and call authorities immediately.

If you iron your mail, that means handling it even more, thereby increasing your chances of coming into contact with contaminants. Furthermore, if you succeed in killing spores by this method, that would only make it more difficult — perhaps even impossible — for investigators to determine through testing whether anthrax was actually present in the item in the first place.

It's also worth noting that thus far anthrax-contaminated mailings have been confirmed in only a few government and media office buildings. While authorities have investigated thousands more cases that turned out to be false alarms and hoaxes, there have been zero known instances of anthrax delivered to people's homes.

Personally, if I received a suspicious item in the mail I'd do what the U.S. Postal Service and Centers for Disease control recommend: dial 911 immediately and stay as far away from it as I possibly could until the hazardous materials team arrived.

Leave the ironing to the experts, I say. Your philosophy might be different.

* * *

Update: Other experts have begun responding to Alibek's suggestion with skepticism. "We have no proof ironing would destroy anthrax in an envelope," Bernd Wollschlaeger, chairman of the Florida Medical Association Emergency Preparedness Task Force, told the Knight Ridder News Service on October 17. Someone who irons paper contaminated with anthrax, he said, "could vaporize it and inhale it." Others questioned whether a steam iron could actually generate enough heat to sterilize anthrax spores and expressed worry that a rash of mail-ironing might simply result in more house fires.

Sources and further reading:

Germ Warfare Expert Tells Americans to Iron the Mail
Associated Press, 17 October 2001

Ironing Your Mail Not Such a Hot Idea
Seattle Times, 18 October 2001

What to Do with Suspicious Mail
From the U.S. Postal Service, 17 Oct 2001

How to Handle Anthrax & Other Biological Agent Threats
CDC Health Advisory, 12 October 2001


Index: Terrorism Rumors and Hoaxes
Updated listing of rumors and hoaxes since September 11, 2001
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