March 3, 2010 in City

TSA using hand swabs to test for explosives

The Spokesman-Review
Christopher Anderson photo

Donovan Mills of the TSA holds a swab used in the new explosive detection technology at Spokane International Airport on March 3, 2010.
(Full-size photo)

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Get ready for the bomb swab.

The Transportation Security Administration announced Wednesday that passengers at Spokane International Airport can expect new safety measures while attempting to get through security on their way to departing flights.

Kevin Donovan, the TSA’s acting federal security director, provided a demonstration of what the agency calls a “Explosive Trace Detection” machine. It’s now being employed in virtually all major airports across the United States partly in reaction to the failed Christmas Day attempt by a Nigerian man who tried to ignite an explosive device aboard a Northwest Airlines flight as the plane prepared to land in Detroit.

TSA agents use a swab on the passenger’s hand. The swab is inserted into the machine and within a couple seconds the machine tells the agent whether the person has traces of things that could be used as explosives, Donovan said.

“More and more travelers will see this,” he said. “There’s really not a false alarm. It doesn’t mean there is a bomb, but it does mean we … will do additional screening.”

The machine tests for residue, such as nitrates that are sometimes used in bomb making. However, farmers who recently handled fertilizer, hunters who fired weapons and those who use certain hand lotions can trigger the alarm, Donovan said.

Asked if the technology has stopped any potential bombs, Donovan said that information was “classified.”

“It’s obviously powerful, useful technology,” he said. “It’s an added layer. It makes it harder for a perpetrator” to sneak a bomb onto a plane.

Some machines are mobile, meaning that travelers can expect what the TSA called “random” searches even after passengers have arrived at the gate. Donovan said the testing takes about eight seconds.

“This procedure will not affect wait times,” he said. “There is no attempt to profile any passengers. It is just the next passenger in line.”

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