A Quiet Casualty of TSA Paranoia: Oddball Scientific Samples

While there are probably more immediate concerns when it comes to the security nanny state the U.S. erected after 2001, such as the continuing erosion of civil liberties (especially when the servant learns to love the lash), this recent article about Boston's Logan Airport security reminds me that there's been another casualty of our security paranoia:

State police say nitrates detected in a piece of checked luggage at Boston's Logan International Airport were traced to a sample of mud brought back from a river in Hong Kong.

Two gates at the American Airlines terminal were closed as a precaution on Tuesday afternoon after the nitrates were detected. The gates were reopened about an hour later after it was determined there was no danger.

State police said the mud sample was brought to Boston by a doctoral student at Hong Kong University who was participating in a research program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

When I was a graduate student and post-doc-this was in the pre-September 11th era-I used to collect soil samples whenever I went some place interesting. I had colleagues who did the same: many Bacillus biologists used to do this, and had extensive collections of soil samples. Bacillus is a spore-forming bacterium, so the spores can survive in soil-even if it's in a jar on your lab shelf. I also had colleagues who studied Drosophila (the flies which are a model system in biology), and would collect strains while traveling. Several of the classic laboratory lines of Drosophila were gathered exactly this way.

But I can't even imagine getting these through airport security, without either being opened (and letting all the flies out...) or getting nuked.

Like I said, there are much greater losses in terms of our civil liberties, but this sucks too.

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I thought soil is on the list of prohibited substances to bring to the US after foreign travel without an import permit (and the main reason US customs forms ask if you have been on a farm while traveling). It's been that way for as long as I can remember.

I hate the TSA.

The terrorists have won.

Welcome to America 2.0; not the America our founders fought so hard to create and tens of thousands have dies to protect.

My samples were probably among the first victims of post-9/11 fallout. I had made a batch of recombinant viruses for a collaborator, with the very last supplies bought with the last moneys on our last grant. Packed them with ample dry ice in a thick expanded polystyrene box, lovingly sealed it and shipped it; postmarked September 10, 2001, the last day of what now seems like a different and distant world.
Of course my little drama and its consequences are ridiculous when compared to the human loss and repercussions that last to this day and will for some time to come, but for that anxious grad student it was hard to know that his last hope of a decent publication was withering away in a hot warehouse in Kansas, under an eerily empty sky.

Um, yes, I learned in grad school (pre 9/11) that you can only bring in soil samples if they're in alcohol or something similar, so that live pathogens wouldn't be transferred to the US. Things like Sudden Oak Death (Phytophthera ramorum) *really* should drive this lesson home.

This is something the mycologists know well, and I'm a little surprised that the bacteriologists aren't as cognizant of the relevant regulations. Kudos to TSA this time.

In a related news: the cost of fedex'ing samples to the US is now cheaper than carrying them in luggage...

By heteromeles (not verified) on 18 Jun 2011 #permalink

@heteromeles: if you pack soil samples properly and only unpack them in the lab using proper procedures, there's very little risk of releasing anything unpleasant. Much less than tourists going off into the jungle and coming back with muddy clothes and parasite eggs in their luggage.

In Rio recently TSA agents strutted around the Brazil's airport speaking English loudly causing people to stare and make disparaging and yes sometimes funny remarks about American law enforcement. They acted like buffoons. A few months ago a couple of TSA agents were arrested I felt unjustly. But the way they acted on the day I was there makes one wonder if this is a good tactic to have buffoonish American TSA agents act like they own the town.

This happened to my wife! She was going to take atmospheric samples in China, and the destination lab didn't have a sufficiently good vacuum. She ended up packing a bunch of cylinders "containing" high quality vacuum; ideally, she'd bring them to the sampling site, open them up, suck in an air sample, and close them again. Of course, if the TSA decided to check her case and opened the cylinders up, they'd be spoiled - instead of containing China air, they'd contain who knows what air. Since the metal cylinders looked a lot like a classical movie bomb, she even packed a note written on university letterhead saying "these don't contain anything dangerous, please please please don't open them, you can call this official sounding person at the university to confirm that it's legit".

Unfortunately, the TSA simply couldn't resist something that looked so obviously like what they imagine a bomb to be, so they opened up her case and opened up all the cylinders. She wasn't able to take any atmospheric samples using them.

The absolutely hilarious thing is, though, that while preparing for the trip she realized that they weren't going to be able to get any mercuric chloride at the destination lab, so in the exact same crate she packed a vial of it, safely layered in some padding and Nalgenes and things. For the unaware, mercury will eat through aluminum (that is, the stuff planes are made of) over sufficiently long periods of time, like say a flight to China.

Needless to say, the TSA left the vial of mercuric chloride - the thing that could have actually damaged the plane - alone, while fiddling with and ruining the vacuum flasks, which were harmless.

I call it "Freedom between the fences".

By Rick Stiles (not verified) on 19 Jun 2011 #permalink

Rob Dillon Jr., Professor of Biology and maintainer of the Freshwater Gastropds of North America suite of webpages and so forth, recently blogged about similar issues.


As a Soil Science PhD student, collecting soil samples from far away places is pretty much front-and-center of what I do. For the moment, my samples all come from within my home country, Canada (mainly the High Arctic), so I have no worries about crossing borders with them. Sending frozen coolers full of samples by air cargo is expensive, but so far has been pretty much hassle-free. Were they to cross a border though, for example if I were to cooperate with colleagues in Alaska, I imagine much greater difficulties.

I've also imported soils from Australia, Sweden, and Germany (the Australian soils actually came from the Australian Antarctic Division, so I had to squeeze lots of letters into small spaces on forms), and the procedure is actually fairly straightforward and somewhat transparent. Not bringing in nasty plant diseases is an obvious goal.

The last time I went collecting in the USA (freshwater inverts, that's how I know about Dr. Dillon) in 2008 I had some attention crossing at Detroit from the USDA. Mostly I was warned to not collect any endangered species, and I was given a list of such species likely to be found in my study area. The USDA/Customs officer also warned me I might have some trouble crossing back into Canada with my specimens (preserved in ethanol and/or deep-frozen in liquid nitrogen), but in the event I had no such worries.

Is there any appeal process for when your work or possessions are ruined by idiotic security personnel, as happened to Tacroy's wife? Is there even a route for complaints?

By TheBrummell (not verified) on 20 Jun 2011 #permalink

It is nothing new that Border Control in some way messes up, and more so, if something biological is involved. The story I have was a visitor from a Southeast-Asian country bringing in seeds in the late 1970ies, under some exchange program with the USDA lab in Beltsville, MD; said seeds came in an USDA-provided container, with specific instructions, on USDA letterhead, that the USDA inspection at the border should take the container and forward it directly to their Beltsville lab. USDA inspection did take the container at the airport in Hawaii, and burned it there, ignoring the letter, as the seeds collection specialist in Beltsville learned when he called to inquire what had happened to the seeds. Fortunately the foreign visitor took it in stride (rather than causing a diplomatic incident).-- I understand that the cherry trees gracing the pool and monuments in Washington , D.C., as a gift of the Japanese government, have a similar history: apparently the first set of trees caught some pest, while being shipped across the U.S., and were burnt on arrival in Washington, DC; the second set is what we see today.--
That nitrites in a soil sample set off some alarm seems to show that either alarm has too low a threshold, or said soil is way too over-fertilized. But USDA should have caught the soil sample as such.--