Lab testing drugs brings increasing dangers for forensic scientists


We know that drugs are dangerous to the users, but they’re also becoming increasingly dangerous to law enforcement, and even to forensic scientists who work in laboratories. Those dangers are creating a backlog of testing. 

“These drugs are coming on the market on the average a new one every seven to ten days,” said Dr. Suzanne Bell, Chair of West Virginia University’s Department of Forensic and Investigative Science. 

At that rate, it’s not only making lab testing these drugs more dangerous, but it’s also making it take months longer.  

“These materials are often cut with other drugs that mimic the same effects as heroin and that’s where we see this problem with the carfentanils, which is the elephant tranquilizer, where just a speck of that would be fatal to a human being, but it’s economical to use as a cutting agent because it delivers the same general physiological effect,” Bell explained. 

With those dangers, law enforcement is becoming more reluctant to field test drugs.

“These materials are so small that if you spill a little bit or if you get a couple of grains ingested, you can go to the hospital,” said Bell. 

Labs have standard procedures and wear personal protective equipment, but now with the increased dangers of even testing the drugs, it’s becoming more difficult for programs like WVU to train future forensic scientists.

“We’ve always taught them about safe chemical hygiene and how do you manage and how do you work in the lab, but now we have to teach them about how do you wear a respirator and how do you handle these things safely?” Bell said. “We can’t we can’t mimic it very well. We can demonstrate and show them.”

Bell also says some of these drugs, won’t react to naloxone. 

“Some of these drugs are so potent, that you can’t just do one naloxone. You’ll do two or three or four, and in some materials we’re not sure if it’s going to work at all,” said Bell. 

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