Customs on the lookout

The Customs Service is equipping its inspectors at airports and U.S border crossings with a radiation detector the size of a pack of cigarettes that hooks on a belt and runs on two AA batteries.

The device has been used sporadically by Customs inspectors since 1999. But in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the agency awarded a contract worth nearly $6 million to Sensor Technology Engineering Inc. for 4,625 radiation detectors.

"If the pager goes off, we attempt to determine why it has gone off," said John Pennella, the executive director of the Customs' applied technology division. "If [it is] a package that is going through the express consignment area, we look at manifest, see if it's a known and explainable occurrence."

The device produces a flashing light, a tone and vibrates. It uses a cesium iodide scintillator to detect radiation. If the alarm goes off, the inspector can quickly localize the source of the alarm with a single digit display, a flashing light or an audio tone.

Pennella declined to say if the device had detected any radiation threat, but he did say it detects radiation found in everyday life from everyday sources.

"We have indeed found items inappropriately marked, and when we looked through the manifest it indicated they are indeed medical material sent appropriately, but not marked on the exterior," Pennella said.

Last year, law enforcement officials used the device in New York City's Times Square, where thousands crowded the area to celebrate New Year's Eve.

A spokesman for the company declined to talk about the product or how widespread it is being used.

"In the climate of today, it is not a good idea to be talking about Customs' use of it," the spokesman said.

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