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Environmental Health & Safety

Shipping Non-Hazardous Materials Via United States Postal Service

An incident occurred recently when a researcher shipped a microcentrifuge tube through the United States Postal Service and the packaging failed.  This advisory is intended to let our research community be aware of the situation and to prevent future incidents from occurring.


The U.S. Postal Service is concerned that a release of a biological, chemical or radiological agent from an envelope or other container might contaminate their equipment, letters, and their employees.  Many of the post offices now have special equipment that can check for contaminants such as anthrax.  The intentional or unintentional release of these materials into their spaces could contaminate multiple locations, cause stress and exposures to employees and other postal patrons.


On May 31, 2005, a researcher from the U of R mailed a vial of a non-hazardous agent (mouse plasmid) to a research location [the name of the researcher, the PI, the department and the shipping location are not pertinent to this advisory].  Unfortunately, the researcher placed the vial into a standard business envelope.  Because of the thickness of the vial, the envelope failed and the vial’s contents were released during the letter sorting process.  The Post Office contacted the Monroe County Hazmat Team for a response.  Fortunately, Environmental Health and Safety was notified and was able to respond to the location immediately.

Photo of envelope and contents:           

EH&S determined/confirmed the shipper’s name and was able to have U of R Security contact the Principal Investigator.  The PI discussed with the Post Office Safety Office the material that was shipped and verified the material did not pose a hazard to the facilities or the staff.  If EH&S had not responded within minutes, the situation may have escaladed and may have closed down the post office.  The underlining problem for this situation was the use of a non-padded envelope.


The U.S Postal Service has a brochure called “Packaging for Mailing” (Publication #2).  The publication identifies the proper packaging, cushioning, closing, sealing, reinforcing, and marking to be used for all packages.    Much of this information is available on the Postal Service’s web site: .

Packaging must provide sufficient support to the items being shipped in order to prevent items from shifting.  The container (package or box) must be large enough to hold the items and any surrounding interior cushioning materials.  Letter style envelopes are acceptable for mailing certain items that can be reasonably be expected to be processed and delivered without damage to the contents or other mail or mail processing equipment.  However, odd-shaped items are not acceptable in a letter-sized envelope.  These items can split or burst the envelope and injure Postal Service employees or damage other mail or mail processing equipment.  In this case (the shipping of a non-hazardous material), if the microcentrifuge tube had been placed in a padded envelope, a fiberboard tube, or a box, the incident would not have occurred.

The shipping of hazardous materials through the U.S. Postal Service is outside of the scope of this advisory.  Please note that the Postal Service permits the shipment of limited quantities of some hazardous materials.  [The definition of a hazardous material (dangerous good) is any article or substance having a clear potential for causing harm to the mail or to the persons or property involved with moving the mail.]  The conditions and preparation and packaging under which such materials are accepted are explained in the Domestic Mail Manual and Publication 52, Acceptance of Hazardous, Restricted, or Perishable Matter.  Conditions applicable to mailing of hazardous materials to foreign addresses are explained in the International Mail Manual.  Failure to observe any of the shipping regulations can result in fines and imprisonment!


If you have any questions about the shipment of non-hazardous materials, please contact the United States Postal Service.  Environmental Health and Safety can provide limited assistance for such shipments.

Contact EH&S at (585) 275-3241 or e-mail EH&S Questions.

This page last updated 11/24/2010. Disclaimer.