Hold your breath: Drug testing just got more advanced

When you hear the term “drug testing”, you would be forgiven if the first thing that comes to mind is urine sample. This is especially true when the media is full of stories about athletes failing drug testsplans to drug test welfare recipients and even the selling of fake urine to pass drug tests. Urine samples are the gold standard (excuse the colour reference), when it comes to drug testing based on a long and comprehensive experience. However it is not without its fair share of problems. These include spiking, swapping or even privacy concerns when it comes to sample collection supervision.

Other specimens in drug testing include blood, hair, sweat and even oral fluid (saliva). Blood has the obvious disadvantage of requiring trained personnel to take the sample, not to mention that it is far more intrusive for the donor. Drug testing on oral fluid (saliva) is well documented and will even become an integral part of a new drug drive legislation that is coming into force on the 2nd of March 2015 in the UK.

Now imagine taking this one step further, and having your exhaled breath analysed for drugs? Ever since their unexpected discovery of Amphetamines in exhaled breath several years ago, scientists at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have continued to push the barriers in this method of drug testing.

In their latest paper, published in Elsevier’s Journal of Chromatography B, Professor Olof Beck and his team have successfully developed the first fully validated and robust screening method suitable for the routine measurement of drugs of abuse in exhaled breath, with a simple procedure for specimen collection sample preparation. This was followed by a highly sensitive analytical technique known as LC-MS (Liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry). The drugs of abuse identified include: amphetamines, methamphetamines, cannabis, cocaine and heroin.

Professor Olof Beck, Karolinska institutet, Sweden.
Professor Olof Beck, Karolinska institutet, Sweden.

Professor Olof Beck from Karolinska institutet, Sweden explains how this is possible:  “The underlying mechanism in exhaled breath drug testing is believed to be the formation of aerosol particles from the airway lining fluid by the breathing process. These aerosol particles may become contaminated with drugs present in the body, which enables drug testing using this specimen. A simple collection device is currently available which selectively collects the micrometer aerosol particles on a filter and enables further laboratory investigation of possible drug content.”

When asked if he could foresee this method of drug testing being used routinely for example in roadside tests relating to DUID (Driving Under the Influence of Drugs), Professor Beck added:

“Yes, I see many possible applications of breath drug testing. DUID is only one - workplace, criminal justice, accidents and compliance monitoring of patients are others. For DUID the short detection time is relevant since the state of influence is in focus, and this combined with the convenient sampling procedure makes it an attractive solution for roadside testing.”

The full article, entitled: Method validation and application of a liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry method for drugs of abuse testing in exhaled breath can be read here: