The danger of licking envelopes

Glue on flaps is a cozy medium for bacteria

The glue contains a dollop of bacteria-and-mold inhibitor.
  • The glue contains a dollop of bacteria-and-mold inhibitor.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Do bacteriologists, physicians, and persons similarly knowledgeable concerning “germs” lick envelopes, whether from the post office or received in advertising mail? — R.N. Morgan, Hillcrest

So you’re suggesting not only are we guaranteed to lose that Publishers Clearinghouse thing, we’ll be so sick with the flu from licking the envelope, we won’t even care. Life just gets richer, doesn’t it? Well, I’m not sure how many bacteriologists wear latex gloves to open their mail, but I can say your birthday card from sweet old Mom is more infested than your phone bill.

True, glue on envelope flaps is a cozy medium for bacteria. The main ingredient is usually dextrin, a sugar not unlike Karo syrup, though envelope dextrin usually.comes from processed potatoes. Humectants control the absorption of moisture, and polyvinyl resins boofct the stick-on factor for some paper finishes. Scientists have cultured a bevy of microorganisms from mail on which the sender licked the flap glue. But unlicked, it’s quite pristine. The glue contains a dollop of bacteria-and-mold inhibitor (usually sodium benzoate), and it’s dried under hot lamps after it’s applied to the flap. Envelopes are untouched by germy humans during manufacture, and return envelopes in mass mailings are inserted by machine. Even the bacteria you slobber on with your tongue have a limited life span, judging from the science guys’ experiments. They also declare safe the glue on manhandled stamps.

It’s pretty well known that you spread a fistful of germs when you touch someone, so if you don’t shake hands with your mailman, the whole mail experience is not a threat. Just don’t make a habit of relicking someone else’s envelope flaps. That’s your Matthew Alice good-health tip for the day.

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