Claim: Ironing your mail will kill off any lurking anthrax spores.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2001]
I recently heard that ironing letters will destroy the Anthrax virus. Someone else said microwaving letters would too. They said it was some germ-warfare specialist that said it. Is this true?
Origins: On 16 October 2001, Ken
Alibek, a former Soviet germ warfare scientist, told a congressional briefing on nonproliferation that people worried about opening their mail could use a hot steam iron and moist fabric to kill anthrax spores.
"If you are scared, just iron this letter," he said. "After that, they (anthrax spores) become harmless." He said microwaves are somewhat less effective than steam ironing because they don't emit moist heat.
In an October 16 interview with CNN, Alibek was less definite in his recommendation of ironing as the answer to anthrax-laden mail:
But if somebody is afraid of opening letters, I can understand that, of course, but you can use a regular iron, and iron the letters. The probability of the spores surviving is much lower.
"Much lower" doesn't mean "killed off entirely." When your continued good health is hanging in the balance, such small differences become vitally important.
Controversy exists over the pronouncement that heat kills anthrax. According to Jeanne Guillemin, a medical anthropologist and a Professor of Sociology and Senior Fellow at MIT's Security Studies Program who was part of a team that investigated a suspicious anthrax epidemic that took place in 1979 in the former USSR, it's sunlight, not heat, that does in the bacterium:
Sunshine destroys anthrax spores, but very little else does. Heat doesn't, radiation doesn't. It's resistant to explosives. That's precisely the reason why anthrax was developed as a weapon, because it's tough, whereas most bacteria and viruses are fragile.
Other sources state anthrax spores can survive sunlight for a few days, as well as survive heat and steam in temperatures up to
Ironing your mail is the "sure-fire and deadly potato bug killer" of the day — it holds out the promise of a cheap, readily-available counter to the risk of contagion to anyone who can wield a steam iron. However, like its 1930s counterpart, the longed-for easy solution does not turn out to be all it is touted to be.
Barbara "pressed for answers" Mikkelson
Last updated: 8 March 2008