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How Trace Transfer possess a Problem For the TSA in Bomb Detection?

Updated on April 23, 2014

Swabs for Explosives

In recent years the Transportation Security Administration(TSA) has placed new security measures at certain airports that require random swaps of passenger’s hands for explosive residue. This measure was put into effect after the Christmas Day attempt bombing in 2009 of the Northwest Airlines Flight 253. While this safety measure was put into effect for the wellbeing of the American public, it also has the potential to do the opposite. Jay Stanley, an attorney and privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties as quoted by CNN saying: “[The TSA] are basically looking for particles of explosives, which is not something that people normally have." While the average person may not have explosives or come in direct contact with them, this does not weed out to fact that a normal person might come in contact with explosive residue though transfer.


Tertiary Transfer

“Every contact…leaves a trace.” –Edmond Locard, this is not an assumption that can be simply overlooked. If a person that had been handling explosives touches a railing and leaves trace and then someone else touches that same railing; the second person can be found to have explosive residue on their hands though random testing. They can then be subjected to an investigation and possibly fall under the Patriot Act if they cannot come up with a possible explanation.


Explosive Transfer Similar to Cocaine

Another experiment that showed results for transfer similar to what will be expected from explosive transfer was the presence of cocaine on American Currency. Today it is estimated that 90% of all currency in the United States has “0.006 micrograms to over 1,240 micrograms of cocaine” present (ACS). This experiment, under taken by Yuegang Zuo, Ph. D., of the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, goes to show that substances that the average American may not possess can still end up in their possession through transfer.

Explosives Detection Should Go Both Ways

While the TSA is concerned with the ever growing demand to be able to detect smaller and smaller amounts of explosive material, they should also be concerned with the possibility of cross contamination between passengers, both inside the airport and outside.

Current Procedures being Used

Current procedures for the identification of trace explosives being used in airports mainly consists of ETD’s- Explosive Trace Detective Machines. These machines currently are used to test explosives residue from hands, luggage, counters, cell phones, and wheelchairs. These machines utilize Ion Mobility Spectrometry to test samples in less than eight seconds (Mass). While the purpose of these machines is to pick-up trace, it does not seem as if any consideration is being given to possible trace transfer to others at airport settings. In the latest news scientists are researching a new devise DESI- Desorption Electrospray Ionization Mass Spectrometry which is a faster way to analysis explosive material and a way to pick up even less trace amounts (Mass).

Innocence of the American Public

People’s personal innocence can be at stake in these circumstances. If a person where to have explosive residue on them, due to contact with a surface/person containing it, without any explanation as to how they acquired it, the repercussions can be steep. Suspected terrorism in this time in history in the United States has severe punishment; from harsh investigations to falling under the Patriot Act.

While the spread of explosive residue may not pose as wide spread contamination as cocaine has, it is an issue that should be examined as the search for ways to detect even smaller amounts of explosive residue are being sought for environments such as airports. This can help weed out the everyday trace that can be detected from the possible terrorist.


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