The Answer to Detecting One of America’s Deadliest Drugs May Already Be in Its Airports

Fentanyl, a drug 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin, has crept its way into America’s drug market and is killing thousands each year. But tracking it through airports might be the first step toward disabling its deadly path.

The drug is becoming increasingly more common in the illicit drug market for its powerful high and cheap production cost. But contact with a seemingly minuscule amount of the drug — less than a dash of salt’s worth — can lead to overdose or death.

Fentanyl’s potency and newfound popularity is changing the way paramedics and law enforcement operate. As The Atlantic noted, first responders, SWAT officers, forensics lab technicians, and funeral directors are all having to adjust the way they work in order to avoid coming into contact with the deadly drug.

The future of fentanyl detection, to aide forensics labs and first responders, may be a device with which most American air travelers are already familiar.

National Institute of Technology (NIST) scientists specializing in standards for devices used to detect explosives have devised a new way to use those swabs dragged over your hands or carry-on at TSA checkpoints. The swabs and microwave-sized screening device known as Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) are currently used to detect residue of explosives, but new research shows that they can be reprogrammed to detect fentanyl.

“When we saw all the news reporting about the fentanyl [epidemic], the danger of handling fentanyl, and the issues with the color test, using the technology used for the explosives side of the world seemed like a pretty logical way to approach this type of problem,” Ed Sisco, one of the scientists behind the research, told Independent Journal Review.

IMS devices already in use could get a software update and be ready to trace the drug. These devices can detect as little as 10 nanograms of fentanyl if present alone or mixed with other drugs. With current detection through colorimetric tests, law enforcement must scoop out the unidentified drug from a bag and test its contents, risking exposure. With an IMS device, a first responder wouldn’t even have to open the bag. They could just test the outside for trace amounts.

“You can sample it without exposing yourself to too much material. […] That’s a huge safety part of this,” Jessica Staymates, another scientist behind the IMS research, told IJR.

When asked how first responders identify fentanyl, Frank Wagner, an Elizebeth, New Jersey paramedic, told IJR:

“Yeah, when you give them three doses of Narcan and they don’t wake up.”

Currently, colorimetric tests being used in the field inconsistently identify fentanyl. They’re otherwise unidentifiable to first responders on the ground.

A larger device, the DART-MS, is more suitable for those labs and can more easily distinguish between different types of fentanyl.

NIST scientists behind the research say labs are on their way to adopting the new technology. They say manufacturers of IMS devices are currently working on updating their software to make the tools suitable to detect fentanyl, and redeveloping marketing for law enforcement. IMS devices are small enough to fit in the back of a police cruiser, but device-makers are also working on ways to make them more portable.

The biggest hurdle, however, is the price. An IMS unit costs about $35,000.

In cities most affected by the opioid epidemic, the priority is looking for ways to relieve the financial burden of treatment for individuals who OD, not necessarily investing in new technology.

One cash-strapped Ohio town even floated the possibility of refusing care by paramedics to individuals who overdose more than two times and don’t pay their medical bills.

“You can’t give the Narcan quick enough,” Wagner, the New Jersey paramedic, said. “We’re giving it out like Halloween candy because the overdoses are happening so often.”

On a federal level, recommendations by the White House’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis may soon kick fentanyl detection research into high gear.

The commission’s interim report recommended the president to prioritize funding “to quickly develop fentanyl detection sensors and disseminate them to federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies.” However, this funding appeared to be focused on tracking fentanyl distribution at borders and via international mail, not necessarily for first responders.

Following the interim report, the White House declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, which was one of the commission’s recommendations. It’s still unclear whether the recommendation to prioritize funding to track fentanyl will be adopted.

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