Coming into contact with dangerous drugs – part of the job for first responders!

In Bartlesville, Oklahoma, one officer had a scary exposure to fentanyl last year. The power of even the smallest touch of fentanyl is clear. Bartlesville police officer, Sgt. Jim Warring, was wearing protective gloves as he packed up drug evidence believed to be laced with fentanyl, when suddenly he slowly started to collapse. Officers came to the rescue.

“Becoming ill, light-headed, basically passed out and fell,” says Warring. “I don’t know what would have happened had they not acted so quickly.”

Warring says the officers quickly gave him NARCAN® (naloxone HCl) a nasal spray and the first and only FDA-approved nasal form of naloxone for the emergency treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose. NARCAN® counteracted the life-threatening effects of an opioid overdose, which is believed to have saved his life.

Since most accidental overdoses occur in a home setting, it was developed for first responders, as well as family, friends, and caregivers—with no medical training required. The department says this was the first time they’ve had to deal with something like this and had to give one of their own officers NARCAN.

It’s another layer to the opioid epidemic, and an eye-opener to what first responders have to deal with. 

“Even though the officer may not be physically dealing with an individual, all the evidence and things that we handle on a day-to-day basis, that can harm you too,” says Warring. Police say another officer was possibly exposed to fentanyl during the incident as well. That officer was sent to a hospital for treatment.

The appearance of fentanyl and other opioids has become a serious problem in law enforcement; there are homeland security implications due to the potentially deadly nature and easy manufacturability of these synthetic opioids. Fentanyl’s potent properties make it a strong incapacitation agent – it has been found with other dangerous materials in terrorist labs. The small quantities (micrograms) of fentanyl needed to cause severe health issues demand a simple, sensitive test that can be used by law enforcement and other first responders. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl is medicinally used to control pain and some derivatives are used for anesthesia. However, like heroin, it affects opioid receptors that control breathing rate; high doses cause cessation of breathing, leading quickly to death. When used illegally instead of heroin or upon accidental exposure there is high risk of overdose. 

Fentanyl and its derivatives are cheap. They are used as a cutting agents for other illicit drugs – heroin, cocaine, etc. Despite restrictions on fentanyl and several related derivatives, illegal manufacturers simply modify the molecules during synthesis to work around the restrictions. Non- regulated analogs of fentanyl are also used in illicit mixtures. 

Presumptive drug test kits used in the field to identify illicit drugs, used extensively by law enforcement, are disposable “colorimetric” tests. Colorimetric tests change color upon exposure of the test’s chemicals to the target drug or drugs.

Unfortunately, colorimetric test kits react to classes of molecules, which means they can give the same or similar colors for different illicit drugs, making interpretation difficult. Additionally unfortunate is that colorimetric test kits often require a relatively large amount of the drug for testing; when the suspect drug might be fentanyl or a derivative, the health risk to the officer is serious. 

Confusing matters, some makers of colorimetric tests have made what they advertise as a “Fentanyl Test,” a combination of two or three existing color test kits or reagents, all of which give different colors for fentanyl. The idea being that three confirming colors are better than one. The logic here is valid; but, in practice, there is so much variation in color that it’s often really difficult to differentiate them. 

Raman spectroscopy is an excellent way to identify drugs. However, it too requires a relatively large amount of drug to analyze. Raman spectroscopy is also library-based, which means that if a particular drug spectrum isn’t in the library, Raman will not identify it. Raman is also relatively expensive as an initial outlay and given typical budgetary restrictions, cannot be procured for all officers. 

The market also promotes aptamer-based tests – like pregnancy tests – that can work for fentanyl. They are cheap but many times do not react to similarly potent fentanyl derivatives. These tests have known false positives on other illicit drugs such as methamphetamine. 

To overcome the above field testing problems, a test was needed that could meet several criteria: 

  • detect & identify fentanyl at trace levels
  • detect & identify fentanyl derivatives at trace levels
  • detects & identify heroin & its derivatives at trace levels
  • have an easy to read result
  • be pocket-sized and disposable

Field Forensics Inc, (FFI)  a St Petersburg, Florida company, approached the task with rigor. FFI developed Fen-HerTM, Model DXC-001, to overcome the field testing problems and to have all of the features first responders need in a test that needs only trace amounts to be used.

Fen-HerTM combines two analytical techniques in one disposable test. In analytical chemistry and other fields, using two different techniques to identify something is called using “orthogonal techniques”. Using two or more colorimetric tests to identify a substance, for example, would not be using orthogonal techniques. 

The two techniques used in Fen-HerTM are thin-layer chromatography (TLC) and colorimetry. TLC does the heavy lifting by separating the various components that might be in the sample. For example, it can separate heroin from fentanyl, or, fentanyl from cocaine and so on. Once the separation is done, then a colorimetric reagent is applied to the separated components so the officer can easily see the result of the test. 

People who abuse opioids generally build up a tolerance to them so they have to take greater and greater amounts. Officers and first responders do not have such a tolerance so are more susceptible to overdose. 

Fen-HerTM can test down to between 150-200 nano grams of fentanyl or heroin. So, if an officer is confronted with a plastic bag filled with an unknown powder, they can test along the edge of the unopened bag for trace residue, greatly reducing the officer’s risk of accidental exposure. 

In the case where fentanyl might be used as a cutting agent in another drug, Fen-HerTM is sensitive enough to pick out the fentanyl without being overwhelmed by the other drug. In practice, it makes sense to use a standard colorimetric screening test, like FFI’s DABIT-001 before using Fen-HerTM. 

In accordance with the technical recommendations of the Scientific Working Group for the identification of Seized Drugs (SWGDRUG), Fen-HerTM is a combination Category B (thin layer chromatography) and Category C (color test). In the SWG-DRUG hierarchy of drug identification chemical selectivity, Category C is “Selectivity through General or Class Information” and Category B is “Selectivity through Chemical and Physical Characteristics.” 

Color tests are broadly used by police officers for a first level of selectivity because the tests respond to a broader range of chemical characteristics common to seized drugs. Thin layer chromatography (TLC) is used by forensic laboratory chemists – and with FFI’s Fen-HerTM test kit, by police officers – because of its improved chemical selectivity.  The results appear in zones. The fentanyl zone is indicated by the orange arrow; the heroin zone by the purple arrow. The result of the color step is that fentanyl’s appear as an orange color and heroins as a purple color. If an orange color appears outside of the fentanyl zone, it isn’t fentanyl. If a purple spot appears outside the heroin zone, it isn’t heroin.

Undoubtedly, FFI’s DXC-001 gives first responders a new, much safer and much more accurate kit for the presumptive identification of fentanyl, fentanyl derivatives, and heroin. It’s safer because the sample pen needs just a trace amount of material – samples can be taken from residues on paraphernalia such as spoons, pipes, and edges of plastic bags, etc.  It’s more accurate because color appears in different locations on a test card eliminating confusion between heroin, fentanyl and derivatives and it separates common cutting agents and adulterants such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl™) Fen-Her™ to eliminate the possibility of confusing heroin with fentanyl.

Contact the author Kevin Cresswell at Hazmat Nation, for more details and samples for your department.