Mass Spec, First Responders, and a National Drug Epidemic
Written by Christopher Brown   

This article appears in the July-August 2021 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that full issue here.

THE OPIOID EPIDEMIC reached new depths of despair in the last year. COVID-19 served as a secondary epidemic of sorts, and it further exacerbated the increasing rates of drug overdoses across our nation. For example, a community health center with locations in D.C. and Maryland reported its number of patient overdoses nearly doubled in 2020, attributing the challenges of isolating during the pandemic and the growing prevalence of high potency narcotics as a driving force. Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. over the last year. According to the CDC, this marks the highest reported number of overdose deaths ever recorded over a 12-month period.

And while the twin epidemics of COVID and narcotics addiction have led to dark outcomes for many users, there is also a struggle for investigators and law enforcement officials who encounter these potent substances on an increasingly regular basis. Some of the new drugs are strong enough to kill an adult, even in low quantities with minimal exposure.

Recent advancements in chemical detection technology, specifically the miniaturization of mass spectrometry into handheld devices, now puts first-line responders into a better-equipped position to manage these hazards and work in the community while minimizing risk to their own lives.

An Explosion of Narcotics and Synthetic Drugs

The opioid epidemic has raged in the United States for over two decades now, but it took a deeper turn in 2013 when fentanyl first appeared. Since then, fentanyl and the broader family of fentanyl analogs with even greater potency, like carfentanil, have proliferated on the streets. Carfentanil has a quantitative potency approximately 10,000 times that of morphine and 100 times that of fentanyl, making it all the more deadly for substance abusers. Unsurprisingly, these substances are listed as DEA Schedule II and are defined as having high potential for abuse, which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. The U.S. DEA’s annual report, National Drug Threat Assessment, reported synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones are among the most commonly abused substances in the country.

To make the situation even more challenging for personnel who are responding to situations involving these potent substances, powerful opioids are often heavily cut or diluted. If testing is conducted on powder that is 99 percent inert filler material with a trace amount of fentanyl, most portable field technologies won’t be able to adequately detect the threat. The alternative is to wait for a lab to test the substance, but that takes too long to enable rapid decision-making in a tense situation.

Ultimately, officers and first responders need technology that is extremely sensitive so it can detect even the tiniest traces of material.

Enter Mass Spectrometry

Mass spectrometry is most known as a technology used by labs to identify substances down to the finest of levels, but that technology has been miniaturized in recent years and placed into handheld devices. These handheld devices put advanced trace detection technology into the hands of responders. The beauty of mass spectrometry is that it can measure chemicals very precisely down to the molecular level at nanogram quantities, and this means that chemicals have a much harder time hiding in a pile of cutting agent. State and federal agencies are already leveraging portable mass spec devices to safely field-test and identify deadly narcotics.

A portable mass spec device is used to test a collected sample. Photo: 908 Devices Marketing

These portable mass spec devices can analyze samples in a variety of ways, from trace samples received by swabbing the outside of a baggie, to real-time detection of vapor and aerosol hazards. This flexibility is important in ensuring that responders have options for how to respond no matter how the situation unfolds—from examining a pill press in a clandestine lab to encountering powdery substances that have been disturbed into the air. Handheld mass spec provides responders with critical insights that are simply not available with most other detection technologies. Alarmingly, the synthetic drug landscape changes with time, and it is critical for all detection technology made for first responders to be adaptable and regularly updated to detect these hazards. Laboratories are finding that emerging technologies are upgrading their selectivity, by providing first responders with optimal detection and identification capabilities, including a broad range of fentanyls, opioids, and other novel synthetic drug substances.

Ultimately, the power of mass spec lies in its ability to give responders pinpoint accuracy with trace samples. Responder safety is significantly improved if the exterior of packaging can be swabbed for trace evidence to find out what they need to know. Drugs are not frequently processed in sterile facilities that prevent contamination from escaping sealed containers. This means that samples not visible to the naked eye are generally left throughout the scene and on packing materials as trace residues.

Maximizing Trace Sample Detection for Investigations and Safety

Finding and identifying trace samples on the scene of an overdose or other drug-related encounter means that investigators can make stronger decisions in the moment. To start thinking about this more deeply, it’s important to note that there are two definitions of “trace” chemical detection to consider.

• The first type of trace substance is the Invisible Substance. Invisible substances are challenging and threatening because they cannot be seen by the naked eye. Generally, invisible substances are less than 10-20 micrograms of total product. Examples include contaminated surfaces at clandestine labs, emptied containers from trash pulls, and surfaces in public places following a chemical warfare agent (CWA) release.

• The second type of trace substance is the Hidden Substance. Hidden substances are threatening because the visible, bulk material is a nonthreatening substance that contains a small but lethal threat material. Examples include synthetic opioids heavily diluted with cutting agents for personal consumption and controlled substances dissolved in solvents to evade field detection at checkpoints.

A portable mass spec device is used to test a syringe. Photo: 908 Devices Marketing

Today’s emergency responders and security personnel need detection capabilities which address both categories with high sensitivity (the ability to detect threat materials below harmful levels) and high fidelity (the ability to detect reproducibly and reliably).

Through mass-spec driven trace chemical detection, responders can take both invisible and hidden substances and turn them into new types of evidence, while ensuring their own safety. These types of evidence can be used to draw critical connections in investigations. For instance, this granular level of information can be used to determine if a vehicle was used to transport a controlled substance, confirm various tools that were used to construct an improvised explosive device, or locate labware that was used to synthesize methamphetamine.

In the field, officers can test for these types of chemical residues when conducting vehicle searches. For example, in a routine traffic stop where law enforcement officers may not find any bulk controlled substances but do locate several plastic bags with small traces of powder residue, a simple swab can be used to feed a sample to a handheld mass spec device. On the spot, the plastic baggies can provide information about the presence of fentanyl or other narcotics. That can change the course of the entire encounter and lead to a warrant.

Residue evidence that may have previously been ignored or required lab time to truly confirm its identity can now rapidly inform next steps. All the while, officers can maintain a safe distance and maintain their own safety.

Looking to the Future

There is still much work to be done across many organizations to help bring the opioid crisis under control. Until that time, it is critical to keep investigators and law enforcement officers who may encounter dangerous substances as safe as possible while in the line of duty. Handheld mass spec offers an opportunity to do just that, with its lab-quality approach and molecular sensitivity. The unknown is now just a quick test away from spilling its secrets and letting responders take the lead.

About the Author

Dr. Christopher Brown is a co-founder, VP and CTO of 908 Devices Inc. He has published more than 150 scientific papers and conference presentations on the development and use of field forensic technologies, and has more than 50 granted/pending patents. Brown received his B.Sc. from Brandon University and Ph.D. in Chemistry from Dalhousie University.

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