On-Scene Fentanyl Response & Identification with GC-MS


Author: Philip Tackett, Ph.D., certified HAZMAT responder and GC/MS Product Manager at FLIR Systems, Inc.

Clandestine drug labs are not a new problem for responders, but they are growing in number and present potentially dangerous crime scenes. One of the greatest opioid threats facing responders today is fentanyl. Portable gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC/MS) equipment can help hazardous materials (HAZMAT) response teams quickly identify white powders, like fentanyl, on-scene.

Fentanyl Chemical Relevance

Opioids are medically used for pain relief. One of the most common opioids is fentanyl (N-(1-(2-phenethyl)-4-piperidinyl-N-phenyl-propanamide), the effects of which are like heroin. Fentanyl is listed as a Schedule II drug under the United States Code (USC) Title 21 Controlled Substance Act and is also controlled internationally under Schedule I of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. It is a favored painkiller because it is fast-acting. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and many times that of heroin. Misuse is on a significant rise, due to the euphoric effect felt by the user. The ease of access has turned it into a global epidemic. Because of its high potency and the fact that users don’t know how much to administer, fentanyl has led to a significant surge in overdose deaths.

Threat to First Responders

Fentanyl is most commonly distributed as a powder, pill, or patch. A person can overdose by simply touching or inhaling a small amount, presenting an incredibly dangerous threat to first responders, law enforcement officers, and even forensic chemists. If fentanyl is suspected, law enforcement officers are advised not to perform field tests. A Hazardous Materials Incident Response Teams should be called to assess suspected clandestine labs.

Chemical Identification using GC-MS

HAZMAT responders must perform quickly and with limited dexterity when wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). In a clan-lab, responders are responsible for data collection, sampling, and in some cases, analysis that leads to real-time decision-making. A person-portable gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GC-MS) like the FLIR Griffin™ G510 can aid responders with decision-making by delivering quick identification of illicit drugs, synthetic analogues, and associated precursors. On-scene confirmation gives responders the actionable intelligence needed for timely law enforcement and remediation.

The Griffin G510 is completely self-contained in a 36-pound box, including the batteries, carrier gas, and vacuum system. Responders can carry it into the clan-lab. It is IP65-rated, which means it is dust-tight and spray-resistant, adding flexibility to decontamination procedures. The G510 alerts the operator with visual alarm confirmation both on the handheld probe, as well as the on-board, 9-inch touchscreen. The large touchscreen can be operated by a responder while wearing full PPE.

HAZMAT responders can use the Griffin G510 to analyze all phases of matter (solid, liquid, gas). Its integrated survey mode capability identifies vapor phase chemical threats within seconds. This mode can be used to identify many chemical solvents found in a clan-lab. Its integrated split/splitless liquid injector enables responders to perform direct syringe injection of prepared organic liquids. Any unknown powders retrieved from a clan-lab can be prepared for syringe injection. This same injector also accepts samples via the Prepless Sample Introduction (PSI) Probe. Direct solid samples in their native form (such as unknown powders) are placed into the PSI-Probe for analysis by GC/MS. The Griffin G510 reduces the burden of sample preparation for the operator and provides ultimate flexibility as the daily mission changes.

Standard analytical methods for the detection of drugs of abuse (including fentanyl and heroin) are included with the G510, and are linked to the full National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Mass Spectral Library. Although the systems perform highly selective and sophisticated analysis, they display the results via a simplified user interface that expedites decision-making for both field operators and forensic chemists.

Fentanyl Analysis Results by GC-MS

On the street, heroin is commonly cut with fentanyl. HAZMAT responders are likely to uncover both drugs in a single unknown powder sample. GC/MS is an ideal tool for clan-lab assessments, because it can separate out multiple drugs in a single, complex sample. One of the most common sample preparation techniques for unknown powders is a solvent extraction. This technique involves adding the powder to an organic-based solvent. A syringe is then used to extract a very small portion of the organic-based liquid sample and inject it into the GC-MS for analysis.

The advanced GC/MS results are an example of a syringe injection of an organic-based sample containing fentanyl and diacetylmorphine (the most common chemical name for heroin). In this single GC/MS sample run on the FLIR Griffin G510, both drugs were detected in less than ten minutes. Confirmation of the drug via a NIST match is presented.

Many chemicals can be detected and analyzed in the vapor phase, including solvents used in the production of narcotics. Pyridine is a common solvent used in the production of fentanyl and is likely to be discovered in a clan-lab scenario. The FLIR Griffin G510 results in Figure 5 show the detection of pyridine using vapor mode capability. In less than two minutes, the presence of pyridine is confirmed via a NIST match.


GC/MS has long played a critical role in traditional laboratory-based chemical analysis, and is the gold-standard for forensic analysis. But chemical emergencies rarely occur in the safety of a laboratory as evidenced by the rise in street drugs and clan-labs. Chemical emergencies can happen anywhere, extending the need for GC-MS equipment beyond the lab. Person-portable GC-MS systems, like the FLIR Griffin G510, provide the ability to confirm clandestine production of illicit drugs via same day analysis.

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