If you’re traveling by plane in the United States, you know that sometimes you’ll get pulled aside for a “swab test.” It happened to me on our way home from New Orleans not long ago. I had nothing to hide and we were way early for our flight at MSY, so I stayed good-natured and joked with the TSA officer that if he opened my carry on bag, he was going to have to close it too, cuz it was stuffed to the gills and had taken me 10 minutes to get the zippers to close ;-). He didn’t share my good humor, but he did re-zipper the bag.
Being a “chosen one” appears to be random (although some think it’s if you look suspicious or if a TSA officer still has to fill their quota for the day) and it’s certainly harmless enough – they swab your hands (and/or your laptop, shoes, film, cell phone, bags, wheelchair or cast) with a cotton cloth and check for explosive residue in an Explosives Trace Detector (ETD).
If you test negative, you’re free to go. But if you’re positive, you have to go to the next step of security.
The problem is that some people wind up with a false positive. Here’s why:
See, the test is looking for the stuff bombs are made of and the two chemical compounds that are usually used are nitrates and glycerin. The thing is, there are a lot of typical, everyday things that have those chemicals in them:
- hand soaps that contain glycerin
- lotions that contain glycerin
- cosmetics, hair products, etc. which may contain glycerin
- baby wipes that may contain glycerin
- certain medications (e.g., nitroglycerin and other nitrates)
- lawn fertilizers
- fireworks and other pyrotechnics
So what can you do? Simple. Before you get to X-ray, wash your hands…REALLY well (don’t forget to scrub your cuticles and under your fingernails!). Make sure there are no remnants of soap or lotion (or meds or munitions or fireworks) on them. If you recently used a baby wipe, again, make sure your hands have been washed afterward (although really, if you’re using a baby wipe for its intended use, I hope you’re washing your hands anyway, if you catch my drift). Same thing with your shoes, and if your suitcase or laptop or anything else may have somehow come in contact with any of those chemicals, wipe them down too.
If you still get flagged as positive, don’t make a fuss – most likely you’re going to get patted down again by a TSA worker of the same gender as you (Can you refuse a TSA pat down? Here’s what we found out). If you become belligerent or hostile, they’re just going to think you have something to hide and it certainly won’t get you through the process any faster. So let them do their job and if you have nothing to hide, you should be done soon enough anyway. Assuming you got to the airport far enough in advance (here’s how to figure out how early you should arrive at the airport), the chances of you missing your plane because of this short delay are pretty small.
By the way, if you’re aware of any contact you may have had with those chemicals, let the TSA workers know…it might help them get to the bottom of things faster so you can be on your merry way.
By the way, you can probably thank, in part, the would-be bomber of the Dec. 25, 2009 Northwest Airlines flight 253 over Detroit for prompting the whole hand-swabbing thing. The year after that, TSA implemented the program and spent about $60 million on ETD machines. They’ll never admit that’s why the hand swabbing all started but really, c’mon, what else could it be? So thanks, bomb failure dude!
As for my recent encounter with the TSA officer in New Orleans? He swabbed my 3 bags of PJ’s Coffee (I luuuuuuuv PJ’s Coffee – even more than Starbucks!) and nothing else in the suitcase. All negative. Yay!
A tip of the hat and a huge THANK-YOU to Shannon D., who gave us the initial heads up about this topic!
Feature Photo: TSA
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