Tue., December 17, 2013 4:42pm (EST)

Thanks To This Savannah Crime Lab, Arsenic Won’t Make It Under Your Tree This Year
By Orlando Montoya
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Updated: 7 months ago

SAVANNAH, Ga.  —  
Max Lieberls of the Savannah laboratory using a half shade polariscope to examine a sugar sample, 1968.  The cylindrical apparatus on the right is the light source.  Polarisopes were replaced by automatic polarimeters in the 1970s.  (photo US Customs and Border Protection Agency)
Max Lieberls of the Savannah laboratory using a half shade polariscope to examine a sugar sample, 1968. The cylindrical apparatus on the right is the light source. Polarisopes were replaced by automatic polarimeters in the 1970s. (photo US Customs and Border Protection Agency)
While Christmas toys wait safely under the tree for their big day later this month, you might be surprised to learn how much testing they went through before they hit the shelves.

Some of the testing that makes sure those gifts are child-ready goes on right here in Georgia.

In the port city of Savannah, a new facility has opened to test all types of products coming into the U.S.

The Customs and Border Protection crime lab is a quiet, sterile place where chemists in white lab coats walk around enough machinery to conjure a science lab.

Chemist Rafael Martinez puts tiny sample tubes into a microwave-sized box called a gas chromatograph, a sophisticated oven that breaks down solids and liquids. The chromatograph takes everything from perfumes to pharmaceuticals.

"What it will do is take each of those separated components and technically destroy it, take it into pieces," Martinez says.

The Customs and Border Protection Agency opened this $25 million lab in June as a replacement for a smaller facility.

Lab director Carson Watts says there aren't many toys currently in the testing facility right now. The Christmas stocks came in during the summer.

"Our busy season for toys was months before it actually hit the stores," Watts said.

There's been a port crime lab in Savannah since 1918. The lab originally tested imported sugar, and still does in addition to holiday toys and gifts.

Watts says not every import gets tested, but the small percentages that do can sometimes yield terrifying surprises.

One of the latest rejects: a brightly painted robot that didn't meet the muster of consumer safety laws.

"This particular item, only this little button right here had more lead than was allowed," said Watts.

A higher than legal amount of lead is actually pretty tame compared to some other safety hazards. The lab has found holiday-themed stuffed animals containing enough fluffy arsenic to kill people. They’ve also found candy laced with cocaine.

Customs and Border Protection Agency Port Director Lisa Brown says she can't believe the brazenness of some offenders.

"What I'm always surprised or amazed at is just the levels that people will go to try to evade the laws of the United States," Brown says.

Some of your favorite holiday treats can also end up in the lab.

Chemists here can burn coffee beans into a powdery ash. Based on the minerals they find, they can tell if the coffee really comes from the country of origin that an importer claims.

Watts says a case of garlic fraud once threatened the US garlic industry when an importer claimed higher-taxed Chinese garlic was made in India.

And if your holiday parties have chocolate, that, too, can come under the lab's scrutiny.

"It depends on, 'Is it cocoa? How much sugar's been added? How much chocolate's there? How much sugar's there? Is there added sugar there? Is there butter fat?'" Watts says. "And all those things are used to determine what the proper classification is. And based on the classification, the rate of duty is established."

Millions of tax dollars are at stake, and it’s not just food and toys. Shoes, handbags and all types of clothing are taxed at varying rates depending on their materials. The lab tests those microscopic fibers.

Some of the work done at the Savannah crime lab has led to nationwide product recalls. It investigates trade and law enforcement cases at ports from Philadelphia to Key West.

Despite the holiday activity, Port director Brown says the gift-giving season isn't any busier of a time for her and her agents.

"We're busy all the time," Brown says. "I think busy is a relative term. Every day is interesting. I think sometimes when you think you've seen it all, something else will happen."

So as you're buying holiday presents this week, know that some just like them might have gone through a chemists' investigation right here in Savannah.