IN THE UNITED States, heroin and its chemical cousins are getting better and better at killing—especially as waves of potent, toxic synthetic opioids wash over the country. Fentanyl, 50 times more powerful than heroin, is making up a bigger share of the increasing number of overdose deaths. And users aren’t the only ones at risk: Officers and first responders face hidden dangers of opioids, too.
Last month, an Ohio cop accidentally overdosed when he brushed a small amount of the synthetic derivative powder carfentanil off his shirt; he had just searched a vehicle where dealers had dumped drugs on the carpet. A Maryland officer got sick when he opened a nightstand drawer in a drug den and came in contact with a mixture of heroin, fentanyl, and other compounds, and a Connecticut SWAT team fell ill after a flash-bang grenade stirred up fentanyl-laced dust in a drug dealer’s home. Some police departments now carry first aid kits for drug-sniffing dogs that are getting poisoned by the drugs.
As more law enforcement officers come in contact with synthetic opioids, they’re running into a big problem: They can’t tell exactly what chemical they’re dealing with, and therefore how to protect themselves. The century-old method that police use to identify white powder substances—adding a few drops of liquid acid reagent to turn heroin purple or cocaine orange-yellow—doesn’t work with fentanyl. “If there is a small amount of fentanyl on its own it turns orange,” says Jennifer Verkouteren, an analyst at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. “But when mixed with heroin you can’t tell.” That means detectives can’t tell the difference between a bag of heroin and one containing fentanyl, or one of its analogs like carefentanil, a horse tranquilizer (100 times more powerful than fentanyl), according to the DEA.
Which is why scientists are developing new ways to test for fentanyl without ever touching it. In their laboratory just outside of Washington, DC, Verkouteren and research chemist Edward Sisco created two methods to identify the white powdered drug—though not before some careful education. “First we had to go through a complicated safety review to make sure we didn’t kill ourselves,” says Verkouteren.
The first method, called thermal desorption direct analysis in real time mass spectrometry (TD-DART-MS), relies on a $35,000 device around the size of a washing machine. Like devices at the airport used to detect explosive residues, the process starts with a swab of the chemical. Heating the swab converts the chemical to a gas, and the system applies an electric charge to see how long it takes for the charged particle to drift in a field. That lets scientists detect the size and shape of the molecule, which is compared to a reference library of drug compounds. The machine can detect fentanyl at a concentration of just 0.1 percent.
As the group acknowledges in a recent paper in the journal Forensic Chemistry, that device is too big to ride along with police pulling over dealers or busting into drug dens. That’s where a second method, ion mobility spectrometry (IMS), comes in. This microwave-sized device, which also starts with a swab, can detect as little as 0.2 percent fentanyl.
So the bulkier DART-MS machine—which can figure out a powder’s exact chemical fingerprint—should be most useful for screeners at the postal service, airport, or prison, helping law enforcement officials keep up with the influx of new drugs. “The limitation is whether the police agencies can afford this equipment, compared to what they are doing now which is colormetric tests,” Verkouteren says.
The next step is miniaturizing DART-MS so police can pack it into their vehicle. NIST researchers are also developing devices that can detect minute particles of chemicals in a room; they could mount it on a small robot and drive it into a drug den. Yet another idea is to use either lasers or small puffs of air to kick drug particles off a subject’s clothing or skin and pull them into a mass spectrometry analyzer like DART-MS, explains Greg Gillen, group leader of the surface and trace screening group at NIST. The team is still working on the best way to separate any potential narcotic compounds from other sorts of stuff that may get kicked up as well, as well as chemical fumes or residues in the air.
That kind of non-contact screening, which you might remember from the first Total Recall is still down the road, but still in the sights of engineers and scientists at NIST. “There’s a big interest in going to better detectors,” Gillen says. “They provide more fidelity and fewer false alarms.”
Until then, cops and their dogs just have to stay be super careful when chasing fentanyl dealers, says DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson. “In the past, after you made a seizure it was easy to perform a field test and go about your business,” he says. “We can’t do that if we suspect there is fentanyl because you put so many people at risk. What the fix is we are not quite sure. Right now, it’s to take precaution.”
That warning hasn’t come soon enough for some police. Last week during a routine traffic stop, patrolman David Suckling of Alexandria, NH, found a vial of white powder in the driver’s purse. He opened it. Wind blew the powder into his face and hair, making him sick and triggering a hazmat response at the nearby hospital when he arrived. Lab tests revealed he was exposed to fentanyl. Suckling has recovered and is back to work. But the next time you get pulled over for speeding, don’t be surprised if you see the officer wearing a dust mask and purple nitrile gloves.