Researchers identify tools to protect first responders from fentanyl exposure

Scientists with the National Institute of Standards and Technology have used two previously developed technologies to rapidly detect the presence of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl which may help law enforcement and first-responders avoid accidental overdoses when coming into contact with the extremely potent opioid, according to a paper published in the journal Forensic Chemistry.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid typically manufactured in China that is 50 times more potent than morphine. First-responders and evidence examiners frequently come into contact heroin laced with fentanyl and other lethal synthetic opioids, putting them at risk for inadvertent overdoses. The potency of the drug is such that simply inhaling small particles may cause an overdose.

In the paper, the NIST researchers advocate for the use of Ion Mobility Spectrometry and Direct Analysis in Real Time Mass Spectrometry technologies among law enforcement and evidence examiners. To test these technologies under circumstances comparable to those first-responders and evidence examiners might encounter, researchers created fentanyl analogs for the technologies and examined whether they could detect trace amounts of fentanyl when the synthetic opioid was mixed with other compounds such as heroin.

The IMS equipment, which is often used in airports, was able to detect fentanyl in mixtures where the substance's presence was just 0.2 percent. The DART-MS technology, which is larger and perhaps best suited for use by evidence examiners, was able to detect fentanyl at a ratio of 0.1 percent.

"We hope this makes a real difference to the safety of people who come into contact with synthetic opioids," said Edward Sisco, PhD, a research chemist with NIST and one of the study's authors. "The opioid epidemic is a huge problem. This might be one small way to try to get a handle on it."

More articles on opioids: 
Price, Conway address opioid epidemic in West Virginia 
Drug users increasingly injecting in hospital bathrooms: What hospitals are and aren't doing about it 
AAAHC releases toolkit to reduce opioid over-prescription

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