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New airport device detects bomb residue

From Paul Courson
CNN Washington Bureau

Homeland security
Airport security

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Airport security officials unveiled a new scanning device Thursday that can detect traces of substances used in making bombs.

The prototype machine being tested at Reagan Washington National Airport is based on existing units that involve a tedious method using cotton swabs, wiping sticks and a testing chamber to detect chemicals that could be used as explosives.

The new machine has been outfitted with a small platform where security workers rub a document such as a boarding pass, a passport or a driver's license.

The little platform then moves automatically into the test chamber, where tiny particles would quickly set off an alarm.

Pat Hynes, the airport's federal security director, said such particles would stay on a person's hands for a significant amount of time and probably would be transferred onto such documents.

"When a person is around and touches explosives, they can never really decontaminate themselves," he said.

He noted, however, that there would be times when the machine goes off and a person has a good explanation for such exposure to what the called "a very wide range spectrum of components."

He said he could not elaborate for security reasons, but he acknowledged the list includes substances used in fireworks, shotgun shells and certain fertilizers.

The source that triggers the alert would then be discussed through questioning with the passenger.

"It wouldn't be a false alarm, it would actually be a positive alarm, but when you talk to the individual, [it] could prove to be a false threat," Hynes said.

When the machine gives a positive indication, the passenger's luggage and personal effects would then be subjected to additional checking -- regardless of the answers provided in an interview with security workers.

The airport near Washington began using the unit Tuesday with passengers who had been directed to a more elaborate security check known as secondary screening.

Three machines will be installed by the end of the month at New York's Kennedy International Airport, Chicago's O'Hare International in Illinois and Los Angeles International in California.

Each of the machines costs about $45,000, according to the manufacturer, Smiths Detection.

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