TSA

TSA Puts the Squeeze on Working Mom

An Illinois mom's breast milk went to waste after TSA agents apparently ignored their own policy.

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Marija Starcevic/Dreamstime.com

As a working mother of two, Heather Gieseke has flown enough to know the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) guidelines for traveling with breast milk. She always follows those rules and never had any major issues until Thursday, when TSA agents wouldn't let her take a day's worth of milk through security.

Gieseke, whose youngest daughter is just 2 and a half months old, left her milk behind, but only because she felt she didn't have any other choice. "In the moment, I felt very helpless," Gieseke tells Reason. "At the end of the day, it was the TSA agents versus me," she adds, and "the mom is going to lose every time in that situation."

Gieseke travels about three to four times a month for her job, so she thought she knew the drill. "When you go through security, you declare your milk to the security agent," she says. The TSA's website states that breast milk is "permitted in reasonable quantities through the security checkpoint."

Usually, Gieseke says she walks through the X-ray scanner before receiving a mandatory pat-down. Since she doesn't want her sterile bag of milk to be scanned, an agent will "feel around" the outside of the bag to "make sure there's nothing hiding inside it." Then, the TSA runs paper strips along it. Those strips go through the X-ray machine, and if the scanner detects "hazardous material" from them, an alarm goes off.

On Thursday, Gieseke was making her way home to Edwardsville, Illinois, when TSA agents at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport asked if she would open her bag of milk so they could test it. Officers at other airports have made similar requests in the past, but she always declines and has never run into trouble before. While officers never ask to touch the milk, this sort of testing does consist of an agent waving a paper test strip over the opened bag. It's something Gieseke says she would prefer to avoid.

"A lot of moms are uncomfortable having their milk opened for the chance of it being contaminated," she explains. "There's a lot of exposure to germs and bacteria" that are often airborne, she says, "so it's just not a sanitary situation."

Reached for comment by Reason, a TSA spokesperson confirmed Gieseke could have either sent the milk through the X-ray machine or "made a slight opening" in the bag so an agent "could hover the strip over" it.

But Gieseke pointed out that per the TSA's stated rules, she's well within her rights to opt out of both types of screening. She appears to be correct. According to the agency's breast milk guidelines:

Inform the TSA officer if you do not want the formula, breast milk and/or juice to be X-rayed or opened. Additional steps will be taken to clear the liquid and you or the traveling guardian will undergo additional screening procedures, to include a pat-down and screening of other carry-on property.

She tried telling the TSA agents in Minnesota about this policy, but they wouldn't listen. Instead, she says, they warned her that unless she complied, she wouldn't be able to take the milk through security. "They told me it didn't matter what was posted online, what matters is their internal protocol," Gieseke says.

Gieseke asked to speak with a supervisor, who told her the same thing. At that point, her choices were limited. "My options were: Let them open it and contaminate the milk, in which case I would have just thrown it away on my own, or leave it there," she says. "So I left it there." According to the TSA spokesperson, Gieseke told agents to "just throw [the milk] away."

The milk ended up going to waste, and Gieseke was not pleased. "I was upset. I was angry. I was frustrated." On Saturday, she posted a video to Facebook detailing what happened. That video, she said, "came from pure emotion."

Gieseke sees her experience as part of a wider issue affecting moms who travel. In June 2017, a Colorado mom's breast milk set off an alarm for explosives, prompting an agent to tell her she needed to throw it away. And this past April, a New York mom also claimed she had to toss two bags of milk because the TSA thought they might be "explosive."

It should be relatively easy to tell the difference between breast milk and explosives. Of course, considering the TSA's general ineffectiveness when it comes to evaluating risks, it's not terribly surprising that these sorts of incidents occur.

And occur they do, despite a 2016 law meant to ensure that TSA agents across the country enforce guidelines concerning breast milk and other baby foods uniformly.

Gieseke knows she's not the only one who's gone through a similar ordeal. But she's worried many people will claim it's an "isolated incident."

"We've got to quit doing that because our rights are being violated," she says. "It just makes being a traveling, working mom who's nursing—it makes an already tough job that much harder."

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34 responses to “TSA Puts the Squeeze on Working Mom

  1. “They told me it didn’t matter what was posted online, what matters is their internal protocol,” Gieseke says.

    The law is whatever the enforcer says it is. Rule of man, bitches.

    1. Procedures were followed. Check the fine print on your copy of the social contract, there’s a clause that says these terms and conditions are subject to change without prior notification.

  2. So the TSA does not follow the law?
    I am shocked, shocked to learn that there is gambling going on here.

    1. How can the TSA not follow the law? The TSA ***IS*** The Law (certainly at the airports), just like Trump ***IS*** (embodies) America and Americanism!!!

  3. If she doesn’t like being molested by low lever bureaucrats, maybe she should try inventing a different way to efficiently travel from one place to another.

  4. “Usually, Gieseke says she walks through the X-ray scanner before receiving a mandatory pat-down. Since she doesn’t want her sterile bag of milk to be scanned, an agent will “feel around” the outside of the bag to “make sure there’s nothing hiding inside it.” Then, the TSA runs paper strips along it. Those strips go through the X-ray machine, and if the scanner detects “hazardous material” from them, an alarm goes off.”

    This is all bullshit. That’s not how any of this works. Please correct the article and resubmit.

    1. I know 15-year-olds who – without knowing anything about TSA procedures – would question how an x-ray machine can possibly detect hazardous materials on a paper strip. That’s just not something x-ray machines can do. And of course, most people who have ever gone through TSA screening have probably noticed people don’t go through the x-ray scanners. Only stuff on the convener belt does.

      1. Some of the full body scanners use X-rays.

        1. The backscatter x ray machines for body scanning use an extremely low dose about 0.1 microsievert if the chart I found is correct. It does not rely on penetrating x rays. It detects the Compton scatter from a very low dose. About the same as one banana. Most body scanners now use millimeter wave which does not involve ionizing radiation.

          The baggage scanners use dual energy technology and from what I found an object going through it gets about 10 microseiverts. A very small dose. Less than you get just from flying from NY to LA and about the same as the average daily dose from natural background radiation.

          As has been pointed out the health risks of taking her baby on a plane are far greater. Radiation is the least of her worries.

          So moms are moms and there is no excuse for the TSA agent acting like a jerk no matter what she wants.

      2. “would question how an x-ray machine can possibly detect hazardous materials on a paper strip. That’s just not something x-ray machines can do.”

        Technically true, but there are chemical sniffer machines that can detect hazardous materials.

        Just because everyone calls the big machines that we run all our carry-on bags through at the TSA security checkpoints X-ray machines, that doesn’t mean that x-ray machines is all they are.

        1. I very much doubt that running a paper strip along the outside of a plastic bag will contact hazardous materials from within the bag. It’s why we use plastic: the outside and inside are extremely well separated. Perhaps it could if the mother put the contents in and spilled all over the bag, but then she’d clean it. I’m willing to bet a terrorist would know this ahead of time and just clean the outside of everything.

    2. It’s TSA. NONE of it works.

      If you were a terrorist who wanted to bring down an airliner, could you think of a way to do it? I can think of several – none of which would be stopped by the TSA.

      TSA is just security theater. It’s NOT real security. Even if it were, it would fail. Consider prisons. Smaller perimeter, much stricter control of the people entering, a very limited number of people going in and out, guards and cameras everywhere, razor wire… and yet drugs and other contraband make it into prisons regularly. How is that possible? The same way that TSA would be thwarted – even if it were 100 times more effective than it currently is… that is, only about 1 attempt in 100 would be successful (instead of the current 90 out of 100).

  5. Every time I read about another example of the TSA’s incompetence the distance I’m willing to go by car versus flying gets a little higher.

  6. Gieseke sees her experience as part of a wider issue affecting moms who travel.

    Only moms? And only traveling moms? Well, it’s a start, but she’s got some learning ahead.

    1. “A lot of moms are uncomfortable having their milk opened for the chance of it being contaminated,” she explains. “There’s a lot of exposure to germs and bacteria” that are often airborne, she says, “so it’s just not a sanitary situation.”

      Along similar lines (and not to defend the TSA too much but…) nanny staters vs. helicopter parents is lose-lose from a libertarian perspective.

      1. When you have an infant, I think being a helicopter parent might be appropriate.

        1. When you have an infant, I think being a helicopter parent might be appropriate.

          If you have an infant you lose all right to be concerned about infection when you set foot in the airport, IMO.

          That doesn’t mean TSA agents get to stick their fingers in your breast milk, but as Woody points out this woman is only concerned about moms/babies and probably wouldn’t skip a beat banning adults with a fever and hacking cough from breathing around her baby in an airport.

          1. A recent study found that the collection bins at airports were among the least sanitary of all places in an airport. Declining to open breastmilk bags (a product that is derived largely by enduring a very uncomfortable process) in that environment for no gain is not equivalent to choosing to travel with an infant (by necessity or otherwise).

            Either way, the article doesn’t say anything about bringing her daughter to an airport. It says she was attempting to bring milk home from a work trip. To push back against government intrusion into that seems pretty reasonable to me.

      2. Yeah, her refusal to send it though x-rays caught me the same way. Made me think of the folks who refuse to buy pasteurized milk because the process saps all the “life force” from the milk.

        Still in agreement with you on not wanting to defend the TSA. Helicopter parents don’t bother me as much as nanny-staters as long as they keep their crazy-assed stifling behaviors to their OWN kids and don’t try to regulate the way I interact with mine, but as Lenore Skenazy demonstrates daily, they don’t always hold back those impulses.

        1. When ebola showed up in Africa and then appeared in TX, it didn’t come via cargo ship.

          When people in S. Florida turned up with Zika, they didn’t just finish a drive through C. America.

          If you were really concerned about infection, sealing your kid in a metal tube for 2 hours with 1-200 people from the far corners of the country/globe, all re-breathing the same air, is the wrong way to go.

          If she’s like most of the helicopter moms I know, there’s a decent chunk of hypocrisy thrown in there as well. People with a dry cough or the sniffles have to stay in a separate room from the baby but if you have to make do by pumping in the bathroom, well, you have to make do.

          1. The air is not rebreathed. It is brought in fresh and pressurized by the APU.

            Now you know.

        2. The x-ray thing is more reasonable than the anti-pasteurization people, at least when we’re talking about babies. Ionizing radiation has the potential to make lipases found in milk inactive. For adults it doesn’t matter, but for newborns and other young infants they need those lipases to break down the fats in the milk, as they don’t produce enough themselves. Essentially, she got to choose between feeding her baby non-nutritious milk (that’s really bad for such a young baby) or forgoing it. I think it’s reasonable for her to choose the latter.

          The mom may or may not know the effects of ionizing radiation on milk, but if she travels so much I wouldn’t be surprised if she had looked it up at some point.

          1. How does the body scanner that she has to go through affect the milk in her breasts? I’m ignorant about the technologies and the differences between the body scanners and the scanners for carry-on items. Having said all that, I believe the mom has a valid complaint.

          2. I stand, or rather sit, corrected.

          3. Also, she has to keep pumping milk while traveling, or it becomes uncomfortable, causes health issues, and can cause her to stop producing.

  7. You can’t expect government employees to think. They are just drones.

  8. Bet if she wore a burka they’d whisk her through without a hitch. We don’t want any profiling going on, but hungry babies, no problem.

  9. TSA delenda est.

  10. We are sheep.

  11. Dismantle the TSA and throw all its worthless little agents in prison.

  12. This place is really slipping given no joke about TSA and spilled milk.

  13. In June 2017, a Colorado mom’s breast milk set off an alarm for explosives, prompting an agent to tell her she needed to throw it away.

    Because “throw it away” into the bin with the other stuff TSA identifies as “explosive” is totally the way to deal with explosives.

  14. Just the TSA, being the TSA: We don’t need no stinkin’ policies!

  15. You all are missing the point. Passengers have the right to refuse the milk to be x rates or opened and that right is protected under the BABES act that requires all airports to adhere to their policies without an umbrella disclaimer “we can do what we want”. TSA has since called and taken full responsibility and apologized. They have committed to retraining the entire Minnesota security staff. Mission accomplished. It’s not about being a helicopter parent it’s about protecting your rights as an airline passenger.

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