What really happens when the TSA finds explosives?

by William Touzani on January 2, 2012

What happens when the TSA finds explosives on a passenger, as it recently did?

Because explosive materials come in a variety of shapes and forms, it’s almost impossible to identify it with the x-ray machine.

Explosives can look like a notebook, computer cord, a pack of sliced ham, and yes, even cupcakes.

The x-ray image itself is a computer-generated image in shades of grey that the software displays as shades of orange colors for organic materials; while inorganic materials such as metals, some plastics, a brick, and other chemicals are displayed as shades of green and blue.

A cowboy’s belt buckle or a loaded gun shown from its side will display as solid black, as x-rays are totally blocked off. A bag check and visual inspection are usually called for.

So what happens when a bag is stopped by the x-ray operator, or during a random check for a closer inspection?

A typical sequence of resolution will play as follows:

✔ After a visual inspection, the suspect bag will be swiped first along the handles and tested with the Explosive Threat Detection machine (ETD), an initial reading that may save an operator’s life, before he gets more nosy and the bag explodes on his face. Then the inner seams of the bag are swiped to look for any explosive residue, and finally, the suspected item is swiped and the swipe loaded again in the ETD machine for a final analysis. Explosive residue is known to last for several weeks on exposed areas, even on the handler’s hands after multiple washings.

✔ If the ETD machine alarms, as in the case of the North Carolina man, the supervisor is immediately called to conduct a second reading. Should the alarm persist, the supervisor then calls for the Bomb Appraiser Officers (BAO). A full body pat-down is then conducted on the passenger, a physical and an explosive test is conducted on all of his belongings, and an interview is initiated by the Behavior Detection Officers (BDO).

✔ If the BAO tests prove positive, law enforcement officers are called to the scene and the passenger is handcuffed. Having watched many such situations, I’ve seen that the passenger is usually determined to be a military man or a military contractor who has either come across explosive material or inadvertently forgotten a sample explosive in one of his bags or in his pocket.

The problem with this procedure is that it happens way too often, as many household chemicals, and most aftershaves, perfumes, and hand lotions trigger the same alarm.

(Photo: Andy Field /Flickr)

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