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Roadside breath test for drugs could be on horizon

Updated: April 26, 2013 09:58 AM EDT
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FRIDAY, April 26 (HealthDay News) -- A roadside breathalyzer test for marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs could be a step closer to reality, thanks to new research.

Using a commercially available breath sampler, Swedish scientists were able to identify 12 substances in the breath of at least 40 patients who had taken drugs in the previous 24 hours and were recovering at a drug-addiction emergency clinic.

The findings appear in the April 26 issue of the Journal of Breath Research.

The study is the first to detect alprazolam (the active ingredient in Xanax and other anti-anxiety drugs) and benzoylecgonine (a cocaine byproduct) in exhaled breath, according to a journal news release.

The study also confirmed previous findings that methadone, amphetamine, methamphetamine, cocaine, morphine, 6-acetylmorphine, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the active ingredient in marijuana), buprenorphine (a synthetic narcotic), diazepam (Valium is one brand) and oxazepam (a sedative) can be detected in a person's breath.

"Considering the samples were taken 24 hours after the intake of drugs, we were surprised to find that there was still high detectability for most drugs," study author Olof Beck, a professor at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said in the news release.

"In cases of suspected driving under the influence of drugs, blood samples could be taken in parallel with breath when back at a police station," Beck said. "Future studies should therefore test the correlation between blood concentration of drugs of abuse and the concentrations in exhaled breath."

Currently, analysis of blood, urine and saliva samples is the most common method for detecting illegal drug use and is used by police in many countries. However, a breathalyzer test for drugs would be simpler, less invasive and easier to use in many locations, including roadside checks.

Exhaled breath contains micro-particles that carry certain substances picked up from the fluid lining the airway, according to the news release. Any compound that has been inhaled or is present in the body can contaminate this fluid and pass into the breath, where it can be detected.

In this study, the researchers used a Swedish-made device called SensAbues, which consists of a mouthpiece and a micro-particle filter. When a person breathes into the mouthpiece, saliva and large particles are separated from the micro-particles that need to be measured.

The micro-particles are deposited on a filter, which can then be sealed and stored until analysis is conducted using lab tests known as liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse offers an overview of drugged driving.

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