Breath-Based Illicit Drug Detection

Urine-based drug testing may soon be a thing of the past, as scientists develop new ways of detecting illicit substance use.

For years, the detection of illicit substance use has been achieved by analysis of urine or blood. However there are a number of concerns regarding urine testing, namely that sample collection prior to analysis is inconvenient and uncomfortable for the individual providing a sample, particularly unsuitable for situations such as roadside drug testing or testing by corporations, some of which have policies which no not allow the analysis of urine. In light of this, a less invasive but equally robust method of detecting the use of illicit drugs is required.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have now developed the first validated method of detecting illicit drugs in breath. The concept of using exhaled breath for analyses is not unheard of, as the majority of blood alcohol testing devices are based on an individual’s breath. The convenience and reliability of alcohol breathalysers has encouraged research into expanding their potential applications. The method developed at the Karolinska Institute, led by Professor Olof Beck, was developed based on a study which spanned 12 months and involved the analysis of over a thousand real-life samples, providing some promising results.

The collection method is simple. The individual exhales into a collection device which captures aerosol particles in the person’s breath, separating micro-particles from larger amounts of saliva onto an electrostatic filter. These particles can become contaminated with any drugs present in the person’s body. The collected sample can then be simply extracted from the filter with methanol and subjected to liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS), a highly sensitive analytical technique that allows for the identification and quantification of sample components. This technique essentially separates the individual components of a sample by passing them through an analytical column which will retain different molecules to a different extent, allowing a mixture to be separated so that each component can be analysed (in this case by mass spectrometry).

LC-MS techniques allow for the separation and detection of individual compounds.

The technique developed by Professor Olof Beck and his team can be successfully used with a number of drugs of abuse, including cannabis, cocaine, 6-acetylmorphine (a metabolite of heroin) and amphetamines.

Not only does this method make sample collection more efficient and less invasive, but stricter controls can be put into place by allowing sample collection to be fully monitored, a situation that is something of a concern with urine analysis. The possible applications of this novel method are plentiful, ranging from workplace drug monitoring to roadside incidences of driving under the influence of drugs (DUID).


Beck, O et al. Method validation and application of a liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry method for drugs of abuse testing in exhaled breath. J Chromatogr B, 985 (2015), pp. 189-196.

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Stephanie Rankin

I am an analytical scientist based in the UK with a particular interest in forensic science.

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