Suspicious White Powder Incidents Present New Risks

Fentanyl and its analogues present identification challenges for first responders

Fentanyl and its analogues are more frequently making their way into common street drugs, adding a new dimension of danger to even incidental exposure to these substances. Fentanyls are increasingly being added to heroin and other illicit drugs because they are cheaper and deliver a comparable euphoric high at a significantly lower dose. Today, it is not unlikely that illicit pills and powder, including cocaine, crack, methamphetamine, PCP, and ecstasy, contain fentanyls, thus increasing the risk of accidental death by overdose due to unintended exposure. Therefore, teams responding to suspicious substances in clandestine laboratory production settings must be well-versed in the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures. Furthermore, these responses often involve entry in to areas with airborne respiratory hazards. In these scenarios and under adverse conditions, response teams must assess the situation, perform sample collection, and, in many cases, conduct sample analysis that leads to real-time decision-making.

Since 9-11, first responders across the country have significantly increased their chemical identification capabilities. While operation of the instrumentation has simplified over time, the ability to assess hazards in all chemical phases and use orthogonal testing methods to make actionable decisions remains challenging. First responders routinely use portable gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), and Raman detection equipment to make these assessments.

Onsite chemical identification gives first responders actionable information needed for timely safety, law enforcement, and remediation decisions. Samples collected on scene also may be sent to follow-on, fixed laboratories for further analysis using laboratory-grade equipment. However, accurate identification of all components of a sample can be challenging for both response teams and fixed laboratories for many reasons, including:

  • FTIR may not be an appropriate detection method if the fentanyl compounds are mixed with other chemicals such that they are present at less than 10% of the total sample.
  • Some fentanyl analogues are not present in standard GC-MS and/or FTIR libraries. The Scientific Working Group for the Analysis of Seized Drugs (www.swgdrug.org) has produced GC-MS and FTIR libraries that help fill in some of the gaps in the traditional libraries; however, novel analogues continue to appear on the streets every day.
  • GC-MS analysis methods may not be configured to allow ready detection of all fentanyl analogues. Method adjustments (e.g., longer hold times, faster flow rates, etc.) may be needed to ensure fentanyl compounds appear within the GC-MS run time.

First responders continually work to ensure their readiness for handling scenarios such as the clandestine laboratory. Training on the proper use of detection equipment and ensuring the equipment is well-maintained are key components. Regular participation in chemical identification proficiency testing such as Signature Science’s HazMatPT contributes to a robust training and maintenance program. Proficiency testing builds operator confidence in the use of their instrumentation, ensures detection equipment is functioning properly, identifies training gaps, and serves as a validation of operator competence.

Signature Science’s HazMatPT program provides quarterly chemical test panels based on real-world threat scenarios that teams are using to challenge their ability to identify unknown chemicals, including drug precursors, explosives, chemical warfare agent precursors, and toxic industrial materials. Over the course of several challenges, teams demonstrate their ongoing chemical identification proficiency with conventional down-range equipment using technologies such as GC-MS, FTIR, and Raman. For many first responders, participation in a proficiency testing program is essential to demonstrating their readiness.


Jackie Lyle, MBA, CQA supports the National Guard Bureau Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team Quality Assurance Program as a lead instructor for their laboratories’ ISO 17025 training course. Prior to joining Signature Science, Mr. Lyle served as Medical Operations Officer (Major) for the 92nd CST in the U.S. Air Force, where he led environmental sample processing and medical treatment operations for the Nevada National Guard Active Duty HazMat team. He was a project manager for the annual ‘Desert Torch’ training exercise, consisting of over 140 military and civilian personnel from the FBI, ATF, firefighters and police. Contact us if you’d like to discuss how proficiency testing can support your response team’s readiness posture.