NIST Researchers Recommend Spectrometry for Detecting Fentanyl

Their paper discusses the use of portable detectors to protect first responders who may be handling unknown powders.

A paper published by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) suggests that first responders employ two technologies -- Ion Mobility Spectrometry and Direct Analysis in Real Time Mass Spectrometry -- in order to detect trace amounts of fentanyl in unknown powders they may handle on the job. These will detect it even when it is mixed with heroin and other substances, and law enforcement officers can use that to protect themselves from harmful exposures.

The NIST article summarizing the paper mentions a detective in New Jersey, Dan Kallen, who was searching a home with other officers in August 2015 when they found a bag of white powder. "Kallen removed a scoop of powder for testing. When he was done, he closed the bag, and a bit of air escaped, carrying a puff of powder with it. It was enough to send Kallen and a fellow officer to the emergency room," the article states, adding that drugs in the bag included fentanyl, an opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin.

Kallen described his exposure in a Drug Enforcement Agency video warning first responders about the dangers of handling unknown powders.

The paper has been published in Forensic Chemistry. It is the first research to identify the lowest concentrations at which fentanyl mixtures can be detected using the two techniques, according to the article, suggesting these methods can protect law enforcement officers, evidence examiners, and drug-sniffing dogs.

IMS instruments are commonly used at airports to check for traces of explosive residue. "Currently, police officers have to handle drugs to test them," said Ed Sisco, a research chemist at NIST and lead author of the study. "But with these technologies, they can just swab the outside of a bag to test for fentanyl" and take extra precautions if the test is positive.

The article says IMS instruments cost about $35,000 and are the size of a microwave oven, while DART-MS instruments are more sensitive but larger and more expensive.

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