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Taggants In Explosives

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Issue: Should taggants be required in commercial explosives?

Discussion: Tagging of explosives can refer to two types of marking technologies. Detection taggants are used to enhance the detection of explosives before detonation. Identification taggants are intended to be used to trace explosive materials to their source after detonation. 

The Antiterrorism Act of 1996 requires a detection taggant, or agent, be added to plastic explosives. Without such an additive, plastic explosives can be difficult to detect, and could pose a security threat in the hands of terrorists. These detection agents can be added to plastic and sheet explosive products to make them more "visible" to existing detection equipment without compromising safety or the performance of affected materials. IME has continually supported the development of such detection technologies. However, identification taggants present a different story.

Following any terrorist attack, particularly a bombing attack, reactionary efforts are made to require identification taggants in explosives. In the 1996 anti-terrorism legislation, IME supported the study of the feasibility of placing identification taggants in explosives. Congress assigned this study to the Secretary of the Treasury which subsequently tasked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) with this responsibility. Congress also mandated that the government report be supported by an independent source. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was contracted to conduct this independent third-party examination. IME has worked closely with both the BATF and NAS to insure they have the industry data that they require to complete their studies. 

The NAS report, completed and issued in March 1998, concluded: "At today's level of threat, it is not appropriate to require commercial explosives to contain identification taggants All of the taggant technologies currently available raise concerns about long-range environmental consequences, effectiveness in law enforcement, safety issues, and costs."

The BATF issued an Interim report in March 1998 and also concluded: "At this stage of the Study it is clear that there are remaining complexities surrounding the issue. Any effort which is to have a measurable impact on the prevention and investigation of bombing incidents must be an integrated one, involving the effective regulation of explosives and explosive materials, the effective enforcement of those regulations, and the effective application of cutting edge technologies."

IME's position is consistent with these findings:

  • IME supports all law enforcement efforts to combat the illegal use of explosives.
  • The concept of identification tagging is attractive, but has never been proven safe or practical.
  • Known taggant technologies pose safety, environmental, and utility problems.
  • Less than 2 percent of the bombings in the United States involve commercial explosives.
  • Identification tagging is minimally beneficial to law enforcement and could complicate bombing investigations and prosecutions. 
  • The much-touted Swiss taggant program is not an effective model for a U.S. program and has not been successful in apprehending or deterring bombers in Switzerland.
  • The substantial costs associated with identification taggants have never been justified by the minimal benefits to law enforcement. 

Recommendation: The addition of identification taggants to commercial explosives must be based on sound science and a cost-benefit analysis. Until new technologies can be embraced, it is not in the best interests of the public, the environment, law enforcement or industry to mandate identification taggants in commercial explosives.

November 2001

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