Gardeners concerned that irradiation might cause a problem to the viability of seeds they order through mail order catalogues can rest easy. The U.S. Postal Service announced Jan. 29, it only is irradiating mail destined for specific government offices and plans to continue targeting the process.

With seeds, a little irradiation causes unpredictable, sometimes bizarre-looking plant mutations--if the seeds sprout. But the amount of irradiation needed to kill anthrax in mail also kills both seeds and plants, basically wiping out their DNA.

"Fortunately none of this has any relationship to what gardeners can expect from seed and plant catalog orders this spring. The biggest business threat U.S. catalog nurseries are facing now is unfounded worries--mistaken ideas and rumors," said Chuck Marr, horticulturist with Kansas State University Research and Extension.

Catalog nurseries immediately started to explore different ways to ship orders last fall, when the U.S. Postal Service raised the idea of using irradiation to assure mail safety. Since then, however, nurseries have discovered the only factual reason for offering such alternatives this spring is to calm customers' fears.

"Since Sept. 11, we've all learned that bioterrorism by mail is a very real threat," Marr said. "So, irradiation is a logical tool for the post office to use. K-State meat safety scientists are among the many researchers who have proven it can be an effective way to eliminate disease organisms. Scientists are using such things as electron beam technology--not nuclear radiation--which makes the process very much like pasteurizing milk.

"In fact, the major limitation to irradiation's use today seems to be that it can't tell the difference between anthrax and something like tomato seeds, contact lenses or camera film."

The U.S. Postal Service is testing irradiation's effects on sensitive products.

USPS announced Jan. 29, however, it now is only irradiating mail going to specific government offices in zip codes 202, 203, 204 and 205 (Washington, DC). USPS is leasing irradiation facilities in Ohio and New Jersey and has issued contracts to buy its own equipment. But the new equipment will be for targeted mail, too, because "irradiating all mail simply is not practicable," the announcement said.

"When they say 'practicable,' they mean more than simple logistics. The nursery industry isn't the only one that would be hurt by untargeted sanitation efforts," Marr said. "If nothing else, irradiation can ruin all of the digital and magnetic storage devices that came with the computer age. That includes the so-called 'smart' credit cards and proposed national I.D. cards."

Other mail that would be adversely affected by irradiation includes all the soil, plant disease, and insect samples that Kansans send in each year for analysis in K-State's testing and diagnostic labs.

"Our statewide system of county Extension agents can handle some questions using our Distance Diagnosis setup," Marr said. "They can take a digital picture of a plant problem and upload it on the Internet, include their own on-site analyses, and get a quick second opinion from the labs.

"But for many diagnoses, you need microscopes, chemical equipment. You also need a viable sample, not one that's been sterilized and sanitized along the way."

The horticulturist added the national and world situations have been changing rapidly, so no one can forecast what the future will bring in terms of homeland security.

"We'll all need to keep a 'weather eye' on the news," he said. "As things stand now, though, gardeners have no reason to worry about needing to take unusual steps for the 2002 growing season.

"If anything, they should focus on gardening this year, because it has so many science-backed personal benefits. Gardening can improve physical health while it reduces stress. Evidently, it even makes you feel more positive about life in general. To me, that sounds like the best kind of crop for all of us to be growing now."

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