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New Way of Measuring Drug Debris in Labs Can Provide More Accurate Test Results

Posted October 8, 2018

When forensics professionals work with controlled substances in crime labs, even their most careful efforts result in drug debris getting released into the atmosphere, settling on surfaces and potentially affecting the results of tests carried out to determine substance components.

However, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Maryland State Police Forensic Sciences Division developed a protocol for measuring such traces. They’ve tested it at three forensic labs and published their work.

Chemical testing. Image credit: PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Chemical testing. Image credit: PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

How Does It Work?

During their investigation, the researchers swabbed surfaces inside and outside of the labs similar to how airport security staff members may test luggage handles or the parts of baby strollers as passengers move through the queue.

When examining the samples, the team used Direct Analysis in Real Time Mass Spectrometry (DART-MS). Dart-MS works for a wide variety of samples and measures the mass of molecules within each one.

Next, they used a technique called Liquid Chromatography Tandem-Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS) to see how much of each drug was present in a sample through a process that allows separating individual compounds. The instruments used for this research were more sensitive than the equipment most forensic professionals use for their everyday workloads.

Notably, this technique can handle samples directly wiped off of surfaces. That means the people testing the substances in the labs don’t have to come in contact with drugs in bulk powder form.

Fentanyl Is Often Found With Other Drugs

The test results showed drug debris from more than a dozen substances, including fentanyl and heroin. For fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, the average amount detected was two nanograms per square centimeter. However, the highest amount found by the tests was 55 nanograms per square centimeter.

Amber Burns, a co-author of the study, clarified that the measurements found wouldn’t impact the results at most labs since the equipment they have isn’t sensitive enough to detect such amounts. However, if a lab were seeking to improve its equipment by investing in more sensitive options, knowing the drug debris levels would be useful.

One reason a lab might need more sensitive tools is if it dealt with a high number of cases involving fentanyl. However, some of those aren’t immediately obvious.

Separate research about overdoses shows fentanyl often appears with other drugs, like cocaine, in a person’s system.

Accidental overdoses occur because small amounts of fentanyl are lethal and may get mixed into other substances unbeknownst to people who consume them. With more than 115 U.S. residents dying from opioid overdoses every day, accurate testing of co-occurring drugs is important.

Equipment showing fentanyl along with another drug in a person’s system doesn’t necessarily mean they were taken together, but if the tools never detect multiple drugs when present, the outcomes aren’t accurate in any case.

The Contamination Amounts Were Not Universal

The scientists also found that some surfaces in crime labs were more contaminated by drug debris than others. More specifically, they noted that the balances used for weighing evidence had as much as ten times more residue than other parts of a lab.

Plus, they noticed the kind of drug debris in a lab was affected by the cases handled there. In a town where the forensic scientists were exceptionally likely to tackle opioid cases, such drug debris was more prominent.

This Research Could Promote Standardization

People familiar with the opioid crisis and the role forensic professionals could play in influencing the fate of people who use opioids and get wrapped up in crimes assert that teams in forensic labs could be getting people wrongfully convicted. Indeed, there have been instances of lab workers tampering with evidence. Some even purposefully ingested it.

But an even more substantial problem is that protocols vary by state. Some technicians only have minimal training and lack science backgrounds or prior experience.

Best practices recommend cleaning lab equipment regularly to avoid the buildup of drug debris, but it’s rare for labs to keep tabs on levels. The personnel at such facilities might soon feel motivated to change, however. When publishing their findings, the researchers detailed recommendations for recreating the methods elsewhere, which could allow for training technicians.

Future Plans for More Research

The research paper’s authors planned further research related to their techniques. A follow-up study will look at possible less-expensive drug debris testing methods, which could facilitate widespread adoption. They also want to look at how drug debris might pose an occupational hazard.

Shining a Light on the Issue of Drug Debris

Drug debris is a problem many people don’t think about, especially if they’re not lab technicians.

However, it’s evident that traces of drugs on surfaces could cause inaccuracies, meaning this research could have important, long-lasting effects.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes.

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