Toxic, synthetic opioids make the jobs of State Police lab workers dangerous

Chemists now wear thick gloves and masks
Posted at 3:42 PM, Sep 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-21 18:19:45-04

In 2016, 9,632 samples of potentially hazardous, illegal drugs were sent to the Maryland State Police Forensic Science Lab in Pikesville.

Once inside, the scientists have the risky job of figuring out exactly what the substances are made of.

"It is dangerous, but it's become a lot more dangerous," said MSP Forensic Chemistry Manager, Amber Burns.

She says along with bath salts, cocaine and meth, potent and toxic synthetic opioids are coming into the facility.  Samples now frequently test positive for drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil.

"We're seeing a lot of analogs, which are compounds that are similar to fentanyl but just different enough that they're a new drug, so we've identified a lot of unknown substances," Burns said.

Lab workers are on high alert, and naloxone is now kept nearby, just in case.
The scientists also upgraded to thicker gloves, and are required to wear respirator masks along with their lab coats.

Because of the increased safety precautions, and the additional time needed to analyze and identify the samples, what used to take chemists about 20 minutes start to finish now can take a few hours up to a couple days.

Each substance is cautiously weighed and screened by hand.  Then instrumental analysis is done to break down the chemical compounds to ID it.

"We have to be really careful with any powdery substance because you can't tell from looking at it what it might contain," said Burns.

Troopers don't field test possible drugs, and it's not encouraged by the 122 outside agencies that send materials to the lab from across the state.