I recently received an email from TPTP reader Martin from Spain who had some unpleasant experiences with the airport security procedures during a trip in the United States. Martin explained that on three different occasions he had been pulled aside for a “swab test.” Being “chosen” is supposed to be random and it’s basically harmless enough – they swab your hands (and/or your electronic devices, shoes, bags, etc.) with a cotton cloth and check for explosive residue in an Explosives Trace Detector (ETD). If you read negative, you’re free to go. But if you’re positive, you have to go to the next step of security.
Unfortunately, Martin felt that he was not randomly selected for swabbing, but was chosen because of his Hispanic name and/or physical appearance. And to make it worse, every time that his swab was read by the ETD machine it came back positive and he then had to go through extensive searches, pat downs, and “rude” questioning.
My response to Martin was that yes he probably was ethnically profiled because of his Latinx name and appearance. It’s not surprising for people of color, South Asians, Muslims, and other minorities to be targeted for heavier surveillance by the TSA. This is how we live now. However, I also pointed out to him that some folks do get false positive tests which must be explored. It’s happened to me at least once. But here’s why there are so many false positive readings: the test is looking for the materials bombs are made of and the two chemical compounds that are often used are nitrates and glycerin. Hundreds of everyday items contain those chemicals. For example:
- hand soaps that contain glycerin
- lotions that contain glycerin
- cosmetics, hair products, etc. which may contain glycerin
- baby wipes which may contain glycerin
- certain medications (e.g., nitroglycerin and other nitrates)
- lawn fertilizers
- fireworks and other pyrotechnics
What can you do to avoid false positives? Before you get to airport security thoroughly wash your hands. Make sure there is no residual soap or lotion on them. If you recently used a cleansing cloth or baby wipe, again, make sure your hands have been washed afterwards. Same thing goes for your shoes, and if your baggage or electronic devices, or anything else may have somehow come in contact with any of those chemicals, clean them off as well.
If you get flagged with a positive reading ,be calm, don’t act out– most likely you’re going to get patted down by a TSA worker of the same gender as you and your belongings will be searched. Be sure to politely inform the TSA agent if you have been on a farm or a golf course recently, or if you’ve been playing with fireworks. Such is life, if you want to fly in these United States.