Beware Santa's Postmark

Science and Technology

Every year among the many, many Christmas cards someone as popular as myself receives, there are the familiar images of quiet, snowy streets and laughing children, presents and Christmas trees and a portly, rosy-cheeked Santa Claus who presides over the whole thing, with a light dusting of snow on his shoulders, his head thrown back in the midst of a great, raucous laugh.

Of course, this year the snow on Santa's shoulders isn't snow at all. It's an unidentified, finely milled white powder of unknown origin. No. Wait. It's aerosolized, weaponized anthrax spores! He's inhaled at least 8,000 to 10,000 spores — that's more than enough spores to contract inhalational anthrax.

Santa's rosy cheeks aren't a good sign, either. He's febrile. He has a fever. Oh dear, poor Santa.

We need a blood culture, we need intravenous antibiotics, saline. Stat!

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "The incubation period of inhalational anthrax among humans is unclear, but it is reported to range from one to seven days, possibly ranging up to 60 days. It resembles a viral respiratory illness and initial symptoms include sore throat, mild fever, muscle aches and malaise. These symptoms may progress to respiratory failure and shock, with meningitis frequently developing."

So Santa isn't laughing after all. He's actually struggling to draw breath; his lungs have been besieged by large gram-positive, spore-forming, rod-shaped bacteria. Next stop: irreversible lung damage and multi-organ failure, terminating in death. Damn those terrorists. They've killed Santa.

No time to mourn, though. We have to find the Easter Bunny, get him on a prophylactic course of cyprofloxacin, give him a haz-mat suit and a water filter and teach him how to don a gas mask in less than 20 seconds.

Fortunately of course, this isn't likely. Santa is fine. Even so, the spate of anthrax postings has affected the mail at the Claus house this year.

Each year more than 60,000 letters to Santa Claus arrive in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is located about 14 miles northwest of the North Pole. Provided the sender includes a return address, he or she will receive a personal reply that bears a North Pole postmark.

Elsewhere in the country, volunteers can apply to receive and respond to letters addressed to Santa, taking part in what is known as Operation Santa. This year, Operation Santa is in its 71st year.

As reported by the Associated Press Nov. 4, the United States Postal Service (USPS) decided to continue that tradition this year, despite the recent spate of anthrax cases from anthrax spores sent through the postal system.

The USPS has asked that children not include gifts to Santa, including cookies or candy canes or food for the reindeer, such as hay and carrots. There's also a pretty good chance that it will be incinerated if they fold their letters up too many times, making for a suspicious package.

According to a USPS statement released Dec. 4, "Among the measures being implemented is a process for irradiating the mail to destroy any biohazardous material. The Postal Service currently is leasing irradiation facilities in Ohio and New Jersey to decontaminate mail. USPS has issued contracts for purchases of irradiation equipment and said these contracts remain in place. The Postal Service also noted that — as it has said before — irradiation will be used on targeted mail, not all mail."

As reported Dec. 4 by the Associated Press, letters addressed to Santa are being routed to a mail-sanitizing facility in New Jersey, where they will be irradiated, after which they will be sent to New York City for pick-up by volunteers, who can even phone to have letters mailed to them directly.

Once again, science and ingenuity have saved the day. Three cheers for Wilhelm Roentgen who, when he discovered X-rays in 1895, probably never thought they would be used to sanitize Santa's mail.

There are three main methods of irradiation, a sanitization technique that is already used extensively to reduce food pathogens and prevent food-borne diseases: Radiation emitted by Cobalt 60, a radioactive isotope; a focused beam of electrons that could be sprayed at the mail by an electron gun; and X-ray radiation, similar to the type used in hospitals. The USPS will most likely employ X-rays, which could be used to irradiate mail as it passes through facilities on conveyor belts.

Alas, here's the irony: Once the letters have been thoroughly sorted, irradiated, scrubbed, fondled, held up to the light, sniffed by trained dogs, baked for 35 minutes at 350 degrees, surrounded by healing magnets, stacked next to healing crystals, inspected by Miss Cleo the fortune teller, laid end-to-end facing north, sandblasted, cooled to absolute zero, sent into orbit, doused in penicillin, blessed by a priest, a rabbi, a non-denominational lesbian minister, a justice of the peace, and a witchdoctor, sealed in a barrel and thrown over Niagara Falls, placed in a canary's cage for three days and nights while the bird is closely monitored, buried under 6 feet of soil with a dead toad and a crow's foot during the next full moon, and finally given the all-clear, any old wacko can go to the Post Office, pick up an armful, take them home, stuff them with anthrax and send them anywhere. Except, of course, to Santa. Because all Santa's mail will be sorted, irradiated, scrubbed, fondled, help up to the light, sniffed by trained dogs, baked for 35 minutes ...

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