by David Sisler

Maybe we lost our national innocence much earlier. If we had not lost it before, we certainly did during three terror-filled days in 1982. Between September 29 and October 1, 1982, Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide killed seven people in Illinois, and a resulting torrent of panic deluged consumer companies. In its November, 8, 1982 issue, Time magazine reported: "The Food and Drug Administration in Washington counts 270 incidents of suspected product tampering that have been reported around the country in the month since those Chicago-area deaths. It clearly has been inflated by the hysteria of consumers who blame any nausea or headache on poisoned food and medicine; the FDA so far judges only 36 of the incidents to be ‘hard-core, true tamperings.'"

Following the Tylenol murders — which are still unsolved, although James Lewis was convicted of attempting to extort $1 million from Johnston & Johnston after the fact — all kinds of twisted people seemed to be waiting for that particular door to swing open so they could rush through. Some chose to randomly insert foreign objects or dangerous substances into formerly trustworthy products, while others tried to use the senselessness of the Tylenol murders to cover up specifically targeted crimes of their own. In one particularly notorious case, a Seattle, Washington insurance salesman put cyanide in Excedrin in an attempt to kill his wife. She survived, but two other people died to make it look like a random act.

Since the days when the ancient Egyptians melted wax over their papyrus, humans have searched for ways to reveal if a container has been opened. In 1989, the Food and Drug Administration established a uniform national requirement for tamper-resistant packaging of over- the-counter products. If a product is accessible to the public while held for sale its package must have "one or more indicators or barriers to entry which, if breached or missing, can reasonably be expected to provide visible evidence to consumers that tampering has occurred."

Tylenol is now double-sealed with plastic film around the cap. Underneath those layers, the capsules and pills are protected against tampering by a layer of foil. Not only medicine, but countless varieties of containers are sealed against outside intrusion. Enter Physicist Roger Johnston and his team — Kevin Grace, a collector of Indian silver bracelets and a fiber-optics expert, and Anthony Garcia, who picks locks for fun and to maintain his manual dexterity. They watch James Bond movies and "Mission: Impossible" episodes for inspiration. Imagination is a vital key for these three men, the members of the Los Alamos National Laboratory's Seal Vulnerability Assessment Team.

The laboratory was originally set up to test seals which protect confidential documents and nuclear weapons storage facilities. Today both government and the private sector send packaging of all kind to Johnston, Grace and Garcia to learn if their packages really are invulnerable. The trio claims to have defeated 94 tamper-evident seals, using tools and devices available to the public, in less than five minutes each.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, Temtec, Inc., of Suffern, NY, sent their "Visible Seal Cargo Container Integrity Indicator" to Los Alamos for testing. The device is a white strap which buckles around a shipping container. If the seal is broken a spring-loaded dye turns it red. Not only did Johnston breach the security device, he suggested twenty-two ways to make it better.

To demonstrate the ease with which such devices can be foiled, a volunteer sealed four tool boxes with a plastic strip looped around the boxes. The yellow plastic looks like a snake biting its tail. Each tool box contained a gold Styrofoam brick. On the face-up side of the brick was printed the word "OK." The opposite side said, "DEFEAT." Ten minutes later the tool boxes were returned with all four seals intact. There were no signs of tampering, but when the boxes were opened two of the bricks had been flipped. Two seals were defeated.

When asked if there was such a thing as a foolproof seal, Mr. Johnston answered, "I don't think such a thing can exist, even theoretically."

Not so says a traveling tent maker from Tarsus: "You were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance."

God's Son said, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand."

The impenetrable, unbreakable seal. Free for the asking.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 5/24/97

Copyright 1997 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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