NIST Corner: Fentanyl and First Responders
Written by Rich Press   

Originally published: Fall 2017 Issue (Volume 15, Number 3)
View the Digital Edition here

A lethal dose of heroin compared to a lethal dose of fentanyl. This is just an illustration—the substance actually shown in this photo is an artificial sweetener. Photo: Bruce A. Taylor/NH State Police Forensic Lab

Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that is driving the unprecedented epidemic of drug overdoses across the nation, poses an obvious threat to the lives of drug users. But the drug, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, also presents a significant hazard to a different population: police officers and other first responders, whose risk of accidental exposure is increasing as fentanyl use becomes more widespread.

This danger was highlighted by the recent case of an East Liverpool, Ohio police officer who accidentally inhaled a tiny quantity of fentanyl powder that he brushed off his shirt after searching the vehicle of a suspected drug dealer. It was enough to send him to the emergency room.

To address this hazard, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have been exploring ways to safely test unknown powders for the presence of fentanyl. In a recent paper in Forensic Chemistry, they report that two technologies, Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) and Direct Analysis in Real Time Mass Spectrometry (DART-MS), can detect trace amounts of fentanyl even when it is mixed with heroin and other substances. This study is the first to measure the threshold detection limits for fentanyl in mixtures using these technologies.

IMS instruments are commonly used at airports, where a security officer might swab a piece of luggage or a passenger’s hands, then test the swab for traces of explosive residue. A police officer can use a similar routine to test a bag of powder for fentanyl before opening it.

“Currently, police officers have to handle drugs to test them,” said Ed Sisco, a research chemist at NIST and the lead author of the study. “But with these technologies, they can just swab the outside of a bag to test for fentanyl.” If the test comes back positive, they can take extra precautions.

IMS instruments cost around $35,000 and are portable enough to be easily deployed in the field. DART-MS instruments, which are more sensitive but larger and more expensive, might be used to screen incoming material at a forensic lab before it’s handled by evidence examiners. These technologies can also be used to screen packages at the border or at postal service inspection facilities.

Research Based on a Realistic Scenario

For their research, Sisco and colleagues used IMS and DART-MS instruments to detect fentanyl and 16 of its analogs. Both technologies work by ionizing the molecules in question, then using an electric field to draw the ions toward a detector. The molecule can be identified based on the time it takes for the ions to arrive at the detector.

Detecting the synthetic drugs in their pure form is easy. In this case, the researchers mixed small amounts of fentanyl and fentanyl analogs with heroin and with common cutting agents such as caffeine and acetaminophen.

Among the analogs they tested was carfentanil, a particularly dangerous form that is 100 times more potent than regular fentanyl—5,000 times more potent that heroin.

“We wanted to mimic what first responders and evidence examiners are likely to see in the field,” said Sisco. “Would the large amounts of cutting agents mask the fentanyl signatures? That’s what we wanted to find out.”

They found that, using IMS, they could detect fentanyl in mixtures that contain as little as 0.2 percent fentanyl. With DART-MS, they could easily detect mixtures down to 0.1 percent. Both instruments were able to detect traces of the compounds that inevitably land on the outside of plastic bags through handling.

In addition, both techniques distinguished between most of the different analogs of fentanyl. Identifying specific analogs will help law enforcement and public health officials keep track of new analogs as they emerge.

This research paper is the first to publish the IMS and DART-MS signatures for the 16 fentanyl analogs tested. Sisco and his co-authors are speaking with IMS manufacturers about adding the newly identified signatures to their product software. This will allow agencies that already own instruments to identify the fentanyl analogs after their next software update. NIST publishes a widely used DART-MS library, and the authors are working on getting the signatures added to that library as well.

“We hope this makes a real difference to the safety of people who come into contact with synthetic opioids,” Sisco said. “The opioid epidemic is a huge problem. This might be one small way to get a handle on it.”

About the Author

Rich Press is a writer with NIST.


Sisco, E., J. Verkouteren, J. Staymates, J. Lawrence, “Rapid Detection of Fentanyl, Fentanyl Analogues, and Opioids for on-Site or Laboratory Based Drug Seizure Screening using Thermal Desorption DART-MS and Ion Mobility Spectrometry”. Published online 27 April 2017. Forensic Chemistry. DOI: 10.1016/j.forc.2017.04.001


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