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Forensic Science

Swab technique identifies opioids without opening packages

Mass spec method could help police and other first responders screen drug evidence without exposing themselves to dangerous substances like fentanyl

by Kerri Jansen
October 4, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 39


Photo of gloved hands swabbing a plastic bag of powder to collect trace residue.
Credit: National Institute of Standards and Technology
Trace residues on the outside of a suspected drug package, collected with a simple wipe, can be used to predict its contents.

The synthetic opioid fentanyl is so potent that without proper safety procedures, even opening a bag of the powder to test its contents can be dangerous. To give police and other first responders a faster, safer way to screen suspicious packages for opioids like fentanyl, scientists at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology have been designing sensitive analytical tools. Previously, a team at NIST demonstrated that trace amounts of fentanyl, collected using a simple wipe from the outside of a package, could be detected in seconds using thermal desorption direct analysis in real time mass spectrometry. In collaboration with forensic labs in Maryland and Vermont, NIST researchers have now showed that their method allows them to accurately predict the contents of a suspected drug package 92% of the time (Forensic Sci. Int. 2019, DOI:10.1016/j.forsciint.2019.109939). The team analyzed swabs from 191 pieces of drug evidence, mostly plastic bags, and compared the results with extracts from the package contents. Although cross contamination and high levels of a cutting agent led to a few false positives and false negatives, respectively, the technique worked in all cases in which an opioid in powder form was present.

Credit: E. Sisco and M. Staymates/NIST
Using laser light and benign talc, NIST researchers visualized how particles of a powder can contaminate the outside of a package when it is opened or when the powder is poured.


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