Blood Mail

Are you allowed to send your bodily fluids through the post?

Bags of donated blood 

A Chicago man was arrested last month for trying to send HIV-infected blood to President Obama through the U.S. postal system. According to reports published Friday, Saad Hussein has been charged with “knowingly” mailing letters containing tainted “blood, with the intent to kill or injure”—a violation of federal law. If you don’t intend to kill or injure someone, can you send blood through the post?

Yes, with the right packaging. If the blood you’d like to mail is pathogen-free, the United States Postal Service is happy to transport it by ground or air. (Same goes for saliva, urine, and stool samples.) But first you’ll need to satisfy the Department of Transportation’s safety requirements: Place your bodily fluids in a leak-proof receptacle (like a test tube), cushion it with an absorbent cloth, insert the tube and cloth together into a plastic bag or some secondary leak-proof container, and then stuff the whole mess into a sturdy box with the phrase exempt human specimen in bold lettering. (Go to Page 10 of this PDF for a visual.) Of course it’s impossible to know whether untested blood contains viruses or other disease-causing microorganisms, but for shipping purposes, a “reasonable expectation” that pathogens aren’t present is good enough.

It’s more difficult to mail contaminated blood, which the International Air Transport Association and various government agencies classify as either a Category A or Category B infectious substance. The former covers anything that might be lethal on exposure—like blood containing the Ebola virus. Category B includes materials that are somewhat less infectious—like blood infected with HIV. In 2006, the USPS stopped accepting Category A shipments, although you can ship them via certain specialized carriers. The post office will transport Category B packages, but only if the sender has received the proper hazmat training. (Training is often organized by universities or local municipalities under government guidelines.) The packaging requirements for Category B materials are stricter than they are for regular, untainted blood: You’ll need a bucket with a Styrofoam or sponge test-tube holder and a waterproof lid, plus labels specifying that you’re shipping an infectious substance.

Mainstream nongovernmental mail services like FedEx and UPS have rules similar to those of the Postal Service. Each will ship uncontaminated bodily fluids and those that fall into Category B but not substances that merit an A grade. FedEx, for example, has a specialized “clinical pak” (PDF) for biological substances and recommends cellulose wadding, paper towels, and cotton balls as reliable absorbent materials for your bodily fluids.

Saad Hussein isn’t the first maniac to ship diseased blood without proper packaging or hazmat training. Back in 2006, an unnamed individual placed a plastic vial of HIV-infected blood in a mailbox.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Sally Davenport of FedEx and David Partenheimer of the United States Postal Service.