Illegal manufacturing of fentanyl continues to rise and, with it, the dangers of clandestine drug laboratories to responders. Dangerous crime scenes like these are not limited to any one location. Responders everywhere need to prepare to encounter them at any point. Portable gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC/MS) equipment can help hazardous materials (hazmat) response teams quickly identify white powders, like fentanyl, and associated cutting agents on-scene.

Opioids are medically used for pain relief. One of the most common opioids is fentanyl (N-(1-(2-phenethyl)-4-piperidinyl-N-phenyl-propanamide), the effects of which are similar to heroin. Listed as a Schedule II drug under the United States Code (USC) Title 21 Controlled Substance Act, fentanyl is also controlled internationally under Schedule I of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. It is a favored painkiller because it is fast-acting. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times that of heroin.

In the 1980s, fentanyl became infamous as a street drug. By the 2000s, drug dealers began adding fentanyl to heroin to create an even more intense high with a rapid onset. The ease of access has turned it into a global epidemic both by users seeking the drug, and those who buy it unknowingly from dealers. Because of its high potency and the fact that users do not know how much to administer, fentanyl has led to a significant surge in overdose deaths. According to the CDC, In the United States, overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone (drugs such as fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and tramadol) doubled in a single year from 9,500 in 2015 to 20,000 in 2016.

Threat to First Responders

Fentanyl is most commonly distributed as a powder, pill, or patch (see Figure 1). A person can overdose by simply touching or inhaling a small amount, presenting an incredibly dangerous threat to first responders, law enforcement officers, and even forensic chemists. “An amount the size of a few grains of sand of fentanyl can kill you,” said Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Special Agent John Martin. If fentanyl is suspected, the DEA recommends that law enforcement officers do not field test drugs. Hazardous Materials Response Teams should be called to assess suspected clandestine laboratories. Recommendations include:

  • Be alert for signs and symptoms of exposure – including respiratory distress, disorientation, clammy skin, and pinpoint pupils.
  • Keep Naloxone injectors on hand.
  • Bag and destroy grossly contaminated clothing.
  • Do not use hand sanitizer.
  • Upon return home or to the station/base, shower with soap and water.

Chemical Identification Using GC/MS

Hazmat responders must perform quickly and with limited dexterity when wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). In a clandestine laboratory, responders are responsible for data collection, sampling, and, in some cases, analysis that leads to real-time decision-making. A gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GC-MS) can aid responders with decision-making by delivering quick identification of illicit drugs, synthetic analogues, and associated precursors. On-scene confirmation gives responders the actionable intelligence needed for timely law enforcement and remediation.

On the street, heroin is commonly cut with fentanyl. Hazmat responders are likely to uncover both drugs in a single unknown powder sample. GC/MS is an ideal tool for clandestine laboratory assessments because it can separate multiple drugs in a single, complex sample. In some situations, fentanyl is mixed with other substances and pressed into pill form to pass as other pharmaceuticals.

One of the most common sample preparation techniques for unknown powders is a solvent extraction. This technique involves adding the powder to an organic-based solvent. A syringe is then used to extract a very small portion of the organic-based liquid sample and inject it into the GC-MS for analysis (see Figure 2).

Fig. 2. Direct syringe injection performed on GC-MS (Source: FLIR Systems Inc., 2017).

Many chemicals can be detected and analyzed in the vapor phase, including solvents used in the production of narcotics. Pyridine is a common solvent used in the production of fentanyl and is likely to be discovered in a clandestine laboratory scenario. A GC-MS can be placed into Vapor Confirmation Mode and exposed to pyridine (see Figure 3).

Fig. 3. GC-MS being used in a vapor model (Source: FLIR Systems Inc., 2017).

Summary

The opioid epidemic is on the rise, which means that encountering fentanyl and clandestine laboratories is becoming increasingly more common. Responders require tools and resources to help safely process and secure these scenarios. GC/MS has long played a critical role in traditional laboratory-based chemical analysis and is the “gold standard” for forensic analysis. However, chemical emergencies rarely occur in the safety of a laboratory as evidenced by the rise in street drugs and clandestine laboratories. Chemical emergencies can happen anywhere, extending the need for GC/MS equipment beyond the laboratory. Person-portable GC-MS systems provide the ability to confirm clandestine production of illicit drugs via same-day analysis.

 

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Philip Tackett

Philip Tackett, Ph.D., is the product manager for detection at FLIR Systems Inc. He earned his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry under the direction of Professor Paul Shepson at Purdue University. His research involved the investigation of tropospheric halogen chemistry and its role in ozone depletion events in the Arctic atmosphere. He also worked on the design and implementation of an onsite flowing chemical reaction chamber interfaced with gas chromatography and coupled with electron capture detection. Upon joining the FLIR team, he acted as science technical lead for multiple projects before transitioning into product management. He currently oversees FLIR mass spectrometry solutions and is a volunteer hazmat technician in his local community.

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