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Scientific Method: CBP’s Laboratories and Scientific Services

Publication Date: 
Friday, March 17, 2017

Eighty-one years ago this month, the U.S. Customs Service – one of the legacy agencies that later formed U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) – brought together the nine Bureau of Customs Laboratories that had been administratively managed by regional Customs Appraisers. The new organization, called the Division of Laboratories, reported directly to Customs Headquarters.

At the time – March 1936 – the nation was struggling to emerge from the grip of the Great Depression. Duty rates on imports were high, so the Laboratories were a critical component in assessing duties on merchandise ranging from textiles, sugar, and molasses to petroleum, chemicals, dyes, and footwear.

Circa 1906, Chemist Henry Howell stands in the laboratory in the New Orleans Custom House, which was established in 1899. Photo courtesy of CBP
Circa 1906, Chemist Henry Howell stands
in the laboratory in the New Orleans
Custom House, which was established in
1899. Photo courtesy of CBP.

The scientists who worked at the Customs Labs already had nearly a century of experience to their credit. In 1841, U.S. Customs began hiring pharmacists and medical doctors to analyze sugar and molasses imported from the Caribbean to make sure that the commodities hadn’t been doctored to make high-quality products appear to be inferior to avoid duty payments.

Today, CBP’s Laboratories and Scientific Services (LSS) coordinates technical and scientific support for all of CBP’s trade and border protection activities. Specifically, LSS provides forensic and scientific testing that helps CBP enforce trade and narcotics laws, detect and intercept weapons of mass destruction and other hazardous materials, and protect intellectual property rights.

Current view of equipment in the CBP headquarters lab in Newington, Virginia. Photo courtesy of CBP
Current view of equipment in the CBP
headquarters lab in Newington, Virginia.
Photo courtesy of CBP.

The Labs also provide invaluable help to other law enforcement agencies. In one notable case, LSS scientists in Houston analyzed grains of pollen found on the body of an unidentified toddler found on a beach in Boston Harbor. That analysis helped Massachusetts state police identify the child and led to two arrests in her murder.

We like to say that we have three uniformed components – green (U.S. Border Patrol), blue (Office of Field Operations), and tan (Air and Marine Operations). But let’s not forget the white lab coats sported by CBP’s scientists. They may not be visible on our “frontline,” but LSS employees are equally indispensable to CBP’s mission of protecting our national and economic security.

Last modified: 
March 17, 2017