Scientists develop first ever breathalyser test for drugs

New methods could see police able to test drivers for drugs by the roadside without need for blood or urine samples

Benjamin Kentish
Friday 08 December 2017 15:59
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A person's breath contains tiny particles of any drugs present in their body
A person's breath contains tiny particles of any drugs present in their body

Drug tests could soon be carried out in the same way as those for alcohol: with a simple breathalyser sample.

Swedish scientists have developed new technology that detects tiny quantities of drugs in a person’s breath. Current drug testing relies on urine or blood samples, meaning it is more invasive and complex to carry out.

The team from the University of Gothenburg found they could successfully detect whether someone had taken methadone based solely on a breath sample.

Using two different methods, they analysed the substances in the tiny water droplets people release when they exhale. These droplets contain very small particles of a range of compounds that are present in the body, including drugs that the person has taken.

One of the methods, which involved using filtration, collected significantly more methadone particles then the other method.

The study was published in the Journal of Breath Research.

In addition to helping law enforcement authorities, employers and sports doping agencies test for illegal drugs, the technology could also help detect a range of diseases.

The study’s lead author, Dr Göran Ljungkvist, told phys.org: "Exhaled breath contains particles carrying non-volatile substances. The main components, lipids and proteins, are derived from the respiratory tract lining fluid.

“The collection procedure is non-invasive, can be repeated within a short time span and is convenient. The small mass sampled is, however, an analytical challenge. Nevertheless, exhaled particles are a new and promising matrix for the analysis of biomarkers.”

Scientists elsewhere in Sweden have previously shown how breath samples can be used to detect a range of different substances in the body.

The development raises the prospect of police officers being able to use a simple, readily-available breathalyser to detect whether someone has committed a crime such as driving under the influence of drugs.

To begin with, blood samples are likely to be taken as well so that the two different tests can be compared to ensure the breath test is accurate. In time, however, the new method could see breathalysers used as the main way of detecting drugs in the body.

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