Thank you TSA for an experience I’ll never forget!
As every parent knows, traveling with infants can be challenging. That’s especially true when a baby is still breastfeeding—and when the Transportation Security Administration identifies your milk as potentially explosive.
According to one mother, that’s exactly what happened during a recent trip to Denver International Airport.
In a letter posted to the social media account “Breastfeeding Mama Talk,” Heather Andi Jones claims that she was temporarily detained by the TSA when an automated machine identified her milk as a potentially hazardous substance. Obviously, TSA agents took the threat seriously; Jones, however, thinks that the officials went a bit too far, especially when they asked her to cover herself while nursing her child.
Titling the post “Terrible TSA,” the mother detailed the incident.
“I was flying with my 3-month-old,” the post reads. “First time flying with a baby, and it was just her and I. Did my research, and brought frozen breastmilk as well as one 4 oz bottle I had pumped an hour earlier. I wanted something Amelia could drink on the plane if she started melting down.”
This was good research on Jones’ part. The administration notes that liquid breast milk and formula is allowed “in reasonable quantities” greater than 3.4 ounces and that frozen liquids are allowed (though screened separately).
“Amelia can be a bit picky about breastfeeding, so I figured I’d have both options for the flight. Getting through security though turned out to take much longer than expected, with a heart attack shutting down one lane and wedged car seat shutting down another. Amelia was definitely getting hungry and fussy.”
“Once I got through the metal detector and started collecting my things, I was directed to another area where TSA needed to inspect something inside my bag. I figured it was the frozen breastmilk. That cleared right away, but they were having problems with my 4 oz bottle of fresh milk.”
Again, TSA guidelines seem to explicitly allow fresh milk, so the mother wasn’t worried.
Jones thought that this would be a quick check, but that wasn’t the case.
The situation became considerably worse when the infant started to act up.
“Amelia was really starting to lose it, so I asked if I could just stand there and feed her the bottle,” Jones wrote. “Nope. They put it in a machine and it somehow tested positive for explosives.”
We couldn’t find any definitive information on why breast milk might return a false positive in a TSA screening machine. A piece on ThoughtCo explains that products with glycerin can create such false positives. Glycerin is a fairly common additive that’s often found in baby wipes, hand lotions, and various cosmetics. It’s possible that Jones had touched the bottle after handling one or more of these substances, and enough glycerin rubbed off to set off the alarms.
We reached out to TSA spokesperson Lucia Martinez, who declined to comment on whether glycerin could cause a false positive.
“Our equipment tests for a variety of explosive components,” Martinez wrote in an email to HealthyWay. “Unfortunately, we don’t publicly reveal what they are to not tip off anyone who is trying to game the system.”
Unfortunately for Jones, the positive test triggered a pat-down from the agents.
“I was then surrounded by about 6 TSA agents, and they made me wait till a woman agent could come over and give me a very detailed pat-down. At this point Amelia was on the edge, making all the motions of desperately needing to feed.”
While Jones didn’t expand on what the “very detailed pat-down” entailed, the TSA’s guidelines state that pat-downs are part of “additional steps” taken when a mother asks agents not to X-ray or open her breast milk container.
“They made me put her in the stroller and hold my arms out while they patted me down. She lost it. She just started screaming and screaming. I started crying cause I couldn’t do anything, looking down at her while the TSA agent took her sweet time with a very detailed pat -down. She finally finished and let me pick Amelia back up, but I had to continue standing there while waiting for the gloves to be tested.
I’ve read so many stories of other women having issues, and really never thought I’d end up having such a hard time myself.
“Finally they came back with a negative result. I was forced to dump the bottle of breast milk. I grabbed my stuff and walked over to the nearest place to sit, Amelia screaming the whole time. Finally able to feed her, we sat and I calmed down some. Then a TSA agent came up to me and asked if he could find me a cover while I breastfed.”
Given the stress of the experience, Jones wasn’t about to comply with that request.
“‘No thanks,’ I told him. He tried to argue, but I said she doesn’t like having her head covered while feeding. Besides, she’s almost done. He hesitated for a minute, then gave up. Amelia finished and we caught our plane to LAX, where I found a wonderful nursing room to feed her the next meal.”
“I’ve read so many stories of other women having issues, and really never thought I’d end up having such a hard time myself. Thank you TSA for an experience I’ll never forget!”
We reached out to TSA about their policy on public feeding.
“TSA does not have a policy on breastfeeding in public nor we are against it,” they responded. “Thanks.”
Speaking of other stories…
In August, a Michigan woman named Stacie Vroman claimed that TSA agents waited to check her milk for an extended period of time, causing Vroman to miss her flight.
“It almost felt like they were being vindictive at that point . . . almost a power trip or something and I don’t know if they weren’t trained properly with how to test it,” Vroman told Wood TV. “And I had asked TSA, I said, ‘Can you guys just check it because I have to get on the flight.’ Like I’m my child’s source of food, so I have to be on the same flight, otherwise we don’t have a way to feed him.”
The TSA emailed ABC Action News and claimed to have investigated the incident, writing that “officers working at the checkpoint correctly followed all procedures.”
Vroman’s family had to change their flight, which resulted in an unscheduled trip to a more remote airport.
In 2014, California mother Stacey Armato settled her lawsuit against the TSA after being detained in a glass holding area for refusing to allow agents to X-ray her milk. At the time, Armato said that she’d printed the TSA’s rules out to take to the airport, but agents at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport refused to perform an alternate screening. The mother later donated some of the money from the settlement to non-profit BreastfeedLA.
And in June of 2017, the TSA apologized after tossing out a Colorado mother’s bottled breast milk during a screening.
So, what should mothers do when traveling with breast milk?
In an email, a TSA spokesperson told HealthyWay that travelers should inform officers of large containers of liquid at the beginning of the process. According to TSA guidelines, any container over 3.4 ounces will trigger a check.
These liquids are checked with an X-ray. In some cases, officers may ask parents to open containers and remove a small portion of the liquid. Travelers can refuse to have certain liquids X-rayed, but this inevitably results in “additional steps,” including a pat-down and a full screening of other carry-on items.
By the way, you probably don’t have much to worry about with the X-ray screening: While X-rays do emit ionizing radiation, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that there are “no known adverse effects from eating food, drinking beverages, and using medicine screened by X-ray.”
What if a container of breast milk triggers the TSA’s explosive trace detection (ESD) systems? The administration doesn’t publish rates of false positives, but concedes that they can occur. TSA machinery is tuned for extreme sensitivity, so there isn’t much margin for error—nor should there be.
In Jones case, the story has a happy ending.
The mother noted that her infant was “back to her happy self” once she was on the plane with a full tummy.
Of course, the real question is whether the TSA’s guidelines are sufficiently consistent and whether they were followed appropriately. Agents certainly shouldn’t have asked the mother to cover up while feeding—given the circumstances, Jones needed to do whatever she could to keep Amelia from fussing through her flight. If there was ever a situation that called for open breastfeeding, this was it.
But the screening process is also understandable, since agents couldn’t just take Jones at her word. Airport security is, after all, serious business.
In any case, the incident and the ensuing social media fervor will undoubtedly prompt a review of TSA policies. Hopefully it’s nothing more than a one-time inconvenience (and a great story) for Jones and her baby. We wouldn’t blame her if she decides to take the train for her next trip, though.