The sending and receiving of mail is an everyday occurrence within our lives. It’s something that we will all partake in without a second thought. If it’s someone’s birthday, you will likely put a birthday card in the post; or you might send a care package to a friend or family member who is living abroad. Despite it being commonplace, there is great potential for dangerous substances to travel within parcels and letters.

With 11.1 billion letters and 2.4 billion parcels sent in the 2017/18 year, a significant risk is posed by hazardous substances travelling in the mail. What appears to be a normal or everyday letter could happen to contain a dangerous, or even fatal, substance.

One of the key ways to minimise these risks is to use trace detection to detect and identify hazardous powders. A suspicious letter or parcel can be stopped and safely analysed in a mailroom, and then destroyed if suspicions are correct. This way, the threat is not able to make its way to its recipient or to cause any damage in a public and uncontrolled area.

What type of hazardous powders?

The substances tested for using trace detection usually fall into one of two categories: explosives or narcotics.

With terrorism being such a high threat in recent years, explosives are often tested for in mail. By testing for explosives, you can get a strong indicator of items that may contain improvised explosive devices. As well as identifying the devices themselves, you can also work to prevent their transport and the making of such devices in the first place.

Narcotics are often tested for to prevent their illicit distribution.

Identifying suspicious mail

Simple risk assessments will inform about the likely risk of an item and help you to plan the precautions you should take going forward. You want to remain vigilant at all times and conscious of any anomalies. This way, operations in your organisation should be able to continue with minor interruption and low levels of risk.

There are many characteristics that may suggest a piece of mail is suspicious. Although a lot of these can seem quite obvious, it is important to keep yourself, and your team, familiarised. A few suspicious traits worth taking note of are:

  • Excessive fastening (tape, string etc).
  • Uneven packaging.
  • No name or no return address.
  • Strange odours or discolourations.
  • Excessive postage (packaging too big for the size of the contents inside or many layers of wrapping etc).
  • Powder spilling out of an item, or remnants found on outside of item.

Access mail attributes to 63% of addressed letters, meaning a mix of postal networks taking the mail from postage through to delivery. Because of this, it is important that all mail is treated with caution and care, irrespective of its origin or the postal network it is marked with.

Detecting powders

In a mailroom setting it is important for the detection of powders to be as minimally invasive as possible. It’s important for it to be done quickly so as not to slow the postal service down, and without causing any damage to potentially innocent post.

You can scan suspicious items using either cabinet or conveyor X-ray scanners. Items can be scanned and checked for hazardous powders without any physical interference to the parcels or letters themselves.

Cabinet scanners are more compact and so preferable for locations limited on space. They often have lower running costs and sometimes can contain EPD — Enhanced Powder Detection. This means they are able to identify the presence of a powder whilst simultaneously working to identify it.

Conveyor scanners tend to be more substantial machinery and are able to operate at a quickened pace. They use image recognition technology to create Threat Image Projection (TIP), a virtual image management tool.

Identifying powders

To identify samples of hazardous powders, vapours are drawn or swabs are run over an item to collect a sample of non-visible particulates. This is then ran through an ETD — an Explosives Trace Detector — that can identify what the substance is in real-time.

The two branches of identification, vapour and particulate sampling operate differently. Particulate sampling takes a little bit longer but is independent of temperature. It’s also not restricted only to substances that emit high vapours. Vapour sampling is quicker and less invasive, but only reliable in the case of substances with a high vapour emission.

The two methods can use the same equipment, but do so in slightly different ways. Vapour sampling works by drawing the vapour out of a suspicious item which is then tested. Particulate sampling involves a swab being taken and a sample is manually put into the machine for testing.

A method often used for trace detection is Ion-mobility spectrometry, popular for the speed and reliability of its process. Particles within the samples are at first ionized and given a charge. They then travel across a drift tube, which contains an electric field, and are drawn to an ion collector at one end. This then creates a drift time – the time taken for the ions to travel.

Compounds are then identified based on their different drift times which is representative of their mass, charge and size. Different compounds produce different types of ions when ionized. This makes it possible to identify them by the differing behaviours of their ions during the IMS process.

Despite using a complicated scientific process, the trace detection equipment itself is fairly easy to operate. This way, any employee is able to use the machinery and perform the tests.

Some factors to consider

There are a few key factors worth considering when introducing, or maintaining, processes of trace detection.

There are pieces of equipment in a variety of different sizes and weights. With trace detection, it’s often more functional to have light-weight equipment that is also portable, so this is worth keeping in mind.

You also want to look into the sensitivity of testing equipment. The higher the sensitivity, the more reliable the testing, so it may be worth investing here. It’s also important to look into starting times for different equipment. In order for real-time testing at a pace that won’t slow your everyday operations, look for machinery that has a quick warm-up time.

Don’t forget to ensure safe storage for any hazardous substances you may find. A Hazmat box is an affordable and simple solution that will also provide high visibility within a mailroom environment.

Testing for hazardous powders within mailrooms is a necessary part of everyday operation and fundamental to public safety. Using trace detection, suspicious items can be checked for any hazardous substances. This is all done with minimal invasion to the post itself and at a quickened pace that won’t hold up operations.

At Todd Research we stock a range of equipment to help with detecting and identifying hazardous powders in mail. Take a look at our products to see if any of our reliable and easy-to-use scanners and detectors are suitable for your needs. We also offer Suspect Package Training so that you and your team can confidently carry out your everyday procedures, as well as responding safely in the case of emergencies. For any other questions you may have, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.