Taggant History and Background



Acts of terrorism, such as the bombings of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center in New York City always raise concerns about what can be done to prevent these horrific events. Following such atrocities, there have been calls to require taggants in commercial explosives, even though the improvised explosive devices, which are the choice of criminals and terrorists, were not made with commercial high explosives.
The Institute of Makers of Explosives (IME) is the safety and security organization of the commercial explosives industry. Over ninety years ago explosives manufacturers founded this organization to promote standards for the transportation and use of explosives. Our primary mission is to work closely with the many agencies that oversee this very highly regulated industry to ensure the safety of our products.

Detection Taggants

The IME has long offered expertise to law enforcement agencies and legislators in developing rational policy initiatives and preventive technologies. We have consistently advocated the development of preventive technologies that can actually prevent bombings and save lives. IME strongly supported the international effort to enhance the detection of plastic explosives at security checkpoints, by requiring them to contain a detection taggant or marker.

Identification Taggants

While the technology of detection taggants has been successfully implemented, a number of technical challenges remain to be resolved before identification – or post-blast – taggants can feasibly be deployed. These technical issues have been the focus of a number of research efforts and analyses which IME has supported.

Safety Concerns

Identification taggant technology has consistently centered on the “Microtaggant,” which is a chip made of multiple layers of plastic and metal. These chips theoretically could be placed in explosive products with the hope that investigators could find them at a bombing crime scene, after an explosion, and trace them, through the manufacturer, to the bomber.

Manufacturers of commercial explosives are strongly opposed to placing an identification taggant like the Microtaggant, in commercial explosives. This opposition is grounded in the fundamental issues of safety and cost/benefit analyses. The introduction of any foreign substance into explosive formulations raises serious questions about performance and safety. Additionally, there is minimal benefit to law enforcement while the costs of implementing a Microtaggant-type program are significant.

Safety in explosives manufacturing and use is of primary concern when considering the incorporation of identification taggants in commercial products. In order to assure this safety, manufacturers put each of their 4000-5000 products through an extensive testing regime to ensure compliance with government and industry requirements for stability, impact sensitivity and compatibility.

For example, in mining applications, the Mine Safety and Health Administration requires that explosives to be used in gassy or dusty mines meet certain permissibility standards. The Department of Transportation approves and classifies all explosive products before they can be transported. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforces process safety management rules, requiring that any change in a chemical manufacturing process undergo risk analysis and testing before implementation. The Environmental Protection Agency ensures that all explosives manufacturing processes and operations meet rigorous emission and contamination standards. The addition of taggants to explosive products would require retesting these products to ensure continued compliance with these regulations.

It has been proven that it is indeed unsafe to add Microtaggants to certain types of explosives. In 1994, during a manufacturer’s test project, the addition of taggants to molten cast booster material, which included TNT, destabilized the high explosive mix, causing the emergency shutdown of the operation. An independent laboratory analysis of this phenomenon was conducted by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and confirmed that the Microtaggant does indeed destabilize TNT.

In fact, the likely cause of a 1979 explosion at a cast booster manufacturing plant in Arkansas was the interaction of taggants with a molten explosive material. A subsequent lawsuit brought by the manufacturer against the supplier of the taggants resulted in a settlement in which the taggant supplier paid the manufacturer an undisclosed amount.

The bottom line is that considerable comprehensive testing must be done to determine if taggants are safe to use in explosives. This industry and those dependent on our products have an excellent safety record and we will do everything possible to ensure that record continues.

Environmental Concerns

The Environmental Impact resulting from the introduction of an estimated two million pounds of plastic and metal taggants into our surroundings every year has yet to be evaluated. In fact, the addition of such particles to ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in the manufacture of explosives and predominately as an ingredient in agricultural fertilizer would disperse these gritty fragments throughout the environment.

In addition, the change from continuous process manufacturing to batch production for taggant identification would increase the hazardous wastes generated by the operation. The environmental impact of such greatly increased hazardous waste disposal must be considered

Law Enforcement Utility

Law Enforcement Assistance is the main objective of any tagging program. With this in mind, it must be noted that less than two percent of criminal bombs have been made with commercial high explosive products over the last five years. Homemade or improvised explosives are the overwhelming choice of criminals, such as those who bombed the World Trade Center and the Federal building in Oklahoma City.

Even in the few cases where criminals use commercial explosives, if taggants are to be of any use at all, they first must survive the explosion and then be recovered by investigators. Law enforcement agencies that have conducted research in the recovery and use of identification taggants can attest to the fact that finding these taggants is extremely difficult. This would be particularly true in a large scale bombing like the one in Oklahoma City. A great deal of additional resources must be committed to this task with little hope of meaningful success.

Such resources are better allocated to much more productive activities during a bombing investigation.

Even if a taggant were found, at best it leads only to the manufacturer and the last legal purchaser. Seldom do criminals legally purchase explosives. If they want to use commercial products, they generally steal them, and it is far more likely, 98 percent more likely, that they will make their own. This, of course, greatly detracts from the usefulness of such taggants.

Contamination

Furthermore, if taggants were required in all explosives, future bombing crime scenes would be contaminated with countless different taggants. A taggant from a criminal bomb would not be distinguishable from those taggants at the scene resulting from the legitimate use of explosives to produce building materials such as concrete, mortar and stone and the construction of roads and highways. The finding of multiple taggants would seriously complicate the investigation and certainly any eventual prosecution, further eroding any value gained from a tagging program.

The Swiss Experience

Switzerland is the only country in the world to require taggants in explosives. The Swiss experience is often cited as evidence that taggants are safe and effective. However, the Swiss Police readily admit that their program is nothing like that being proposed in the United States, nor is their explosives industry anything like the industry in this country.

The Swiss law was adopted primarily to stop undesirable trans-border trade in explosives. Imported explosives must be tagged only if competing products are also made in Switzerland.

Swiss manufacturers are required to change the taggant code in their products only every six months. Proposals in the United States typically require daily changes in order to achieve any meaningful specificity. The Swiss do not require the maintenance of distribution records or the purging of equipment between batches to avoid contamination. In the United States, these measures would be required to achieve specificity for definitive tracing.

Erroneous reports have greatly exaggerated the effect of the Swiss taggant program. It has been misreported that the Swiss Police solved over 500 bombings in a recent ten-year reporting period with the aid of taggants. This is just not true. Swiss government figures reflect only 187 explosive attacks over the same ten-year period. Of these, only 23 involved materials that were required to have an identification taggant. In these 23 cases, the authorities are unable to explain what, if any, role the taggants played in the case. With no taggant specificity or tracing capability, it is impossible to imagine what significance any taggant could have in the Swiss system.

One can easily see that the Swiss taggant program is dissimilar to that proposed in the United States. It is also evident that the costs of such a tagging program are far less than those anticipated in a domestic program. Here costs could easily exceed the present gross revenue of the entire explosives industry each year.

Most importantly, it should be noted that countries which have faced real terrorism problems, such as Israel, Ireland, Germany, Japan, and Great Britain, have not adopted a taggant program and do not intend to do so.

Economic Considerations

The economic impact of an identification tagging program in America is difficult to fully assess. The cost of placing taggants in explosives cannot be comprehensively calculated by the industry because of many unknowns, such as the size of the taggant batch and the concentration of taggants. We do know that the 1994 quoted price for the 80 mesh Microtaggant is $326/pound. This is the largest and least expensive particle size that could be used in the manufacture of ammonium nitrate, the main ingredient in the preparation of ANFO, the most commonly used explosive in mining.

This equates to an annual taggant cost of roughly $750 million for the mining industry alone. That figure does not factor in processing costs such as re-engineering, record keeping, the shutting down of equipment for cleaning between each batch of explosives, and the disposal of excess hazardous waste during a taggant changeover. Preliminary estimates of the processing costs associated with the tagging of all high explosives are in the vicinity of $520 million and could exceed that depending on the alterations required. Such a program could more than double the cost of explosives to customer industries.

Furthermore, cost analyses show that small companies required to purchase tags in small quantities, at higher prices, could not continue to be competitive and could go out of business. In short, these additional costs could devastate the domestic manufacturing industry, driving those with global markets to manufacture outside of the United States.

The feasibility of any taggant program must also consider the impact of taggant contamination of the derived materials, such as coal, copper, tin, iron, silica, salt and limestone. Numerous industries dependent on commercial explosives have expressed grave concerns about taggant contamination of their end products. These include the mining, stone and quarry, glass, cosmetics, electronics and computer industries.

It should be apparent to all of us that our nation's financial resources are limited and should be spent wisely. One of the primary concerns of Congress over the past several years is that the costs of government regulations should be related to the benefits derived. In fact, this is a mandate in the anti-terrorism legislation directing the studies completed by the National Research Council and currently underway by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

It is essential to assess the full impact of a taggant requirement before adopting a program that would have a devastating impact on many American workplaces and products, particularly in light of the minimal gain. Taggants will not save lives or prevent terrorist bombings.

IME believes that taxpayer and consumer dollars are better directed toward the development of prevention technologies and explosives detection programs and the enhancement of law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives with more resources to combat terrorism.

January 2005