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Production Powders Become a Concern

December 2001
In the weeks and months following the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, what was once ignored during the routine of daily life is now sending up red flags.

Unfortunately, many white powders or fine substances commonly found just about anywhere are being interpreted, in the interest of public safety, as possible Anthrax scares when they appear unexpectedly.

A seemingly harmless powder that has long been a part of the production process for magazines, catalogs and direct mail is causing panic for uninformed recipients interpreting the powder as being Anthrax. And while there is absolutely no health threat involved with the distribution of magazines, catalogs and direct mail, the public is understandably jittery following the discovery of Anthrax-laced mail.

Powders used within the printing process, obviously, have never been an issue until now. Known generically as offset spray powders and slip agents, the powders, such as those manufactured by Oxy-Dry, are used to prevent pages from sticking together while drying, or to keep the books from adhering to polywrap bags. Consequently, quantities of these powders remain in between the pages of books after they have been mailed and have been known to spill out of the pages upon opening, causing concern for uninformed readers.

Following the deaths of several postal workers and an employee at a publishing firm, Americans have been in a state of heightened awareness in the office and at home when it comes to dealing with the mail.

It has been learned that at least one such incident resulted in the dispatching of a Hazardous Materials team to a northeastern business after a magazine subscriber was horrified to find copious amounts of powder fall onto her desk from the back of a magazine.

In another incident, the Associated Press reported that a Wal-Mart in Tahlequah, OK, was evacuated and closed several days for testing of a powder that spilled from a stack of magazines. It was reportedly the tenth such incidence of powder anxiety for Anderson News Corp., which supplies Wal-Mart with a majority of its magazines.

But while these print production powders clearly are not a physical threat to those who come in contact with them, the psychological and emotional turmoil they can cause to uninformed recipients is immeasurable. Some of the biggest players in the publishing and printing industries are doing what they can to address the concerns.

Time Inc. has asked its printers to discontinue the use of cornstarch-based powders in the manufacture of its magazines, according to Peter Costiglio, spokesman for the New York-based news giant.

"We're fortunate now that we're in the autumn, because it's primarily more of a situation when its humid and warmer, and there's a concern about pages sticking together. With cooler weather, it shouldn't be an issue," Costiglio notes.

R.R. Donnelley & Sons of Chicago took the lead among printers, stating in a release that it would curtail or completely eliminate the use of print production powders. "To allay concerns raised by our customers—and ultimately, subscribers and newsstand buyers—we are minimizing or eliminating the use of powder additives in our processes where possible," stated the release, which was distributed to Donnelley customers via its sales representatives.

"For those few products where we would use a slip agent in our process, mail or product owners will be contacted prior to application. The impact on quality and/or runnability, however, is unknown and will be evaluated on an individual basis."

The company added that even publications not produced with these powders may still feature a residue of paper dust or similar lubricating powder from other material such as inserts or polywraps. Donnelley will evaluate its polyfilms to ensure the material it purchases does not exacerbate the issue.

The Graphic Arts Technical Foundation and the Printing Industries of America released an Anthrax Resource Guide for printers, which contains information such as OSHA's recommendations for handling suspicious letters or packages. Also included is a spray powder declaration form that explains the spray powders used in the production process, which printers can provide to their clientele to allay their concerns.

"We've gotten several e-mails and phone calls over the last week," notes Gary Jones, manager of environmental, health and safety affairs for the GATF, in reference to powder scares. "So we put together the resource guide, which contains Web addresses for the USPS, CDC and OSHA, and a one page information sheet on spray powder—their composition, function and particle size.

"This has become more of a panic and concern issue rather than a health issue," adds Jones, who feels that the use of powder in a sheetfed printing operation is "unavoidable."

The Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) notes that some publishers have asked their printers to eliminate or minimize the use of powder additives, as well as suspend the use of polybags whenever possible.

Similarly, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has offered guidelines to its members and printers to ensure safe and effective mailing campaigns. Using clear and identifiable return addresses on the envelopes, with toll-free phone numbers and Website addresses, are just a few of the tips offered to differentiate marketing mail from the suspicious examples that have been found to contain threats.

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