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Science Technology

Hair-Raising Technique Detects Drugs, Explosives On Human Body 162

Posted by samzenpus
from the charge-and-detect dept.
sciencehabit writes Scientists have found a way to combine Van de Graaff generators with a common laboratory instrument to detect drugs, explosives, and other illicit materials on the human body. In the laboratory, scientists had a volunteer touch a Van de Graaff generator for 2 seconds to charge his body to 400,000 volts. This ionized compounds on the surface of his body. The person then pointed their charged finger toward the inlet of a mass spectrometer, and ions from their body entered the machine. In various tests, the machine correctly identified explosives, flammable solvents, cocaine, and acetaminophen on the skin.
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Hair-Raising Technique Detects Drugs, Explosives On Human Body

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  • by Ingcuervo (1349561) on Friday July 11, 2014 @05:42AM (#47429919)
    the way they detect the flammable solvents is by the ignition of them when the spark of static discharge is done
    • by flyneye (84093)

      I'm betting most explosives, being highly combustible, can be set off with a static charge. Good thing they only worked w/traces. Now they can safely find nutballs with traces of explosives on them. Perhaps it would be best if they tried someone holding a keg of gunpowder, you know, to see if it's safe. Gotta trust degreed men of science, after all they paid a lot to get those degrees. We don't need a trace finder , we need a bomb finder, no matter how many degreed scientists we have to blow up to get one.

      • If you walk on a recently fertilized lawn, you have traces of explosives on you.

        Flying in new shoes saves hassle.

      • by mpe (36238)
        I'm betting most explosives, being highly combustible, can be set off with a static charge.

        There are explosives, such as RDX, which will burn, but require a shockwave to cause them to detonate.
    • by durrr (1316311)

      I wonder more about the cocaine detection, if it was intended or accidental.

  • by Rich0 (548339) on Friday July 11, 2014 @05:48AM (#47429929) Homepage

    I'm just looking forward to when the TSA hears about this. Pretty soon we'll all be sporting new traveler's hairdos [blogspot.com]!

    • They want you to feel like it's 1980's all over again. Well, perhaps with a Light Brown Scare instead of the red one - fashions change.
  • Acetaminophen is illegal now??!! Please say it ain't so!!

    • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday July 11, 2014 @06:33AM (#47430023) Journal

      I don't know about Acetaminophen, but I've heard compelling cases made that if Aspirin were discovered today it would be a prescription drug. Think of the side effects, the modern day "think of the children!" attitude, and pathetic need of the body politic to feel "safe" from any and everything.

      • Re:Wait a minute... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by CastrTroy (595695) on Friday July 11, 2014 @06:46AM (#47430037) Homepage
        Acetaminophen aka Tylenol can actually be quite harmful. The difference between the maximum safe dose, and the amount to cause liver problems (or failure) is quite a small margin. Combine that with the fact that they put it in other medications such as cold medications that people take along with regular acetaminophen, and you end up with a recipe for disaster. This American Life [thisamericanlife.org] did an episode on it.
        • by Mashiki (184564)

          Everything can be harmful. Just watch americans freak out that in Canada you can get acetaminophen+codeine OTC.

          • by Jason Levine (196982) on Friday July 11, 2014 @09:03AM (#47430503)

            I wonder if they'll detect that super-harmful chemical dihydrogen monoxide?

          • by Meski (774546)
            And in Australia. What of it? It's called Panadeine. (or a slew of generic names)
        • by swb (14022) on Friday July 11, 2014 @07:33AM (#47430151)

          The funny thing is, try to explain this to your doctor when she wants to prescribe an opiate like oxycodone.

          In about half the cases I've been prescribed opiates the doctor refused to prescribe oxycodone on its own -- I was told it was Percocet (oxycodone + acetaminophen) or nothing, they would not write a prescription for just oxycodone. I had one surgeon do it reluctantly, pointedly asking me why and not really liking my answer that I felt it was dangerous and could add in acetaminophen on my own if I felt it was helpful.

          I did have one specialist who wrote that way and when I asked her why she prescribed that way she said current research showed the liver risk outweighed the small benefits. Ironically she was the "less educated" physicians assistant and not a full MD.

          I think most doctors believe its beneficial but I also think they somehow see acetaminophen opiate formulations as some kind of bulwark against abuse. Either because they believe it is so much more effective paired with acetaminophen and you'll be inclined to take less overall or that people "know" acetaminophen is bad in quantity and it will serve as a deterrent to excessive dosage, especially people with a history of drug abuse.

          I also think they are highly skeptical of someone asking for a specific opiate formulation, even when they initiate the prescription (ie, you have an obvious injury and they prescribe an opiate). It's highly ironic that they're so worried about addiction they're willing to risk serious liver toxicity.

          • by ncc74656 (45571) * <scott@alfter.us> on Friday July 11, 2014 @10:44AM (#47431201) Homepage Journal

            I think most doctors believe its beneficial but I also think they somehow see acetaminophen opiate formulations as some kind of bulwark against abuse. Either because they believe it is so much more effective paired with acetaminophen and you'll be inclined to take less overall or that people "know" acetaminophen is bad in quantity and it will serve as a deterrent to excessive dosage, especially people with a history of drug abuse.

            Also, the DEA watches doctors who prescribe opiates very carefully. If some government goon believes a doctor's handing them out like candy, the doctor's most likely going to be called in for some very uncomfortable questions. See chapter two of Three Felonies a Day [amazon.com] for some examples.

            The way scripts for opiates are handled is also quite different. My wife's oncologist was able to submit the vast majority of prescriptions to her preferred pharmacy electronically; they would be ready for pick-up a short time after. The one time she was prescribed straight oxycodone (or whatever opiate), it was printed on security paper to thwart attempts at altering or copying. It was signed, and some sort of DEA ID number issued to the doc was printed in the header. I had to deliver the prescription to a pharmacy. Her usual pharmacy didn't have it in stock, so I had to find another that did. Once it was filled, I had to sign for it in a logbook (similar to when you buy products containing pseudoephedrine).

            • by swb (14022)

              Oxycodone has required a printed prescription on paper for a long time -- no refills, no phone in. I think hydrocodone (aka Vicodin) was scheduled lower and that made it eligible for phone-in prescriptions and refills without a new prescription, although I believe they recently re-scheduled it to be the same as oxycodone.

              I have to sign for every prescription, from opiates to my high blood pressure medication to antibiotics. I can't remember not having to sign for them.

              Ironically, I think the dependence o

              • by torkus (1133985)

                And then you have the option of just ... stealing the scrip pads assuming you don't bother to forge one. It's not rocket science by any stretch - and that's assuming the pharmacist bothers to check it.

                If they think anything sketchy is going on they call the Dr to confirm...typically via the number on the scrip. Derp. Also pharmacists in chain stores are often assholes...oh you have a scrip for opiates or amphetamines? And tattoos? Yeah...uh huh. Right. We're going to have to call this in. Come back

            • Her usual pharmacy didn't have it in stock, so I had to find another that did.

              That sounds familiar. These prescriptions can be a bitch to fill. My father was in a really bad shape after a fall and the doctor prescribed him oxycodone (I don't think it was pure, may be percocet). I drove around the city half the night trying to find a pharmacy that would fill that prescription. After the fourth pharmacy, seemingly innocent "oh, we don't carry that" excuse sounded really disingenuous.

          • by sudon't (580652)

            I think most doctors believe its beneficial but I also think they somehow see acetaminophen opiate formulations as some kind of bulwark against abuse.

            That is, in large part, why it's in there. But, a lot of people are unaware of of acetaminophen's toxicity, and others will use it anyway, out of desperation, making it the "denatured alcohol" of drug prohibition. Instead of Jake leg, you get liver failure.

            Myself, I won't take anything except aspirin when I want a simple over-the-counter pain reliever, and always insist on acetaminophen-free opiates.

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward

            oxycodone and hydrocodone are very water soluable. acetaminophen is not. Get a glass of warm water and a fridge. You know what to do.

          • by fafalone (633739)

            I also think they are highly skeptical of someone asking for a specific opiate formulation, even when they initiate the prescription (ie, you have an obvious injury and they prescribe an opiate). It's highly ironic that they're so worried about addiction they're willing to risk serious liver toxicity.

            This is exactly it. For every other condition, patients are encouraged to research their condition and its treatments on their own, and to have an informed discussion with their doctor about treatment options. But not for pain. Anyone with an even modest knowledge of painkillers is instantly labelled a drug-seeker. Ask for a painkiller by name, and the doctor looks at you like you're sitting there with a needle and spoon yelling 'GIMME GIMME DOPE'. And the more you justify why you want something, the worse

        • by Imrik (148191) on Friday July 11, 2014 @08:18AM (#47430291) Homepage

          What do you really expect the margin between the maximum safe dose and the minimum unsafe dose to be?

          • 100 to 1000 times below NOEL is the goal -- the standard that few come close to.

            The maximum daily dose of Paracetamol [just-think-it.com] (aka Acetaminophen) is 66% of the FATAL dose.
          • by Darinbob (1142669)

            It sounds funny, but with many over the counter remedies there is a gradual increase in danger. Ie, if you take too much aspirin you get intestinal irritation and bleeding that gradually gets worse as you take more. With acetominophen/tylenol you go from being fine to being hospitalized very quickly. Even one or two tablets beyond the "do not exceed" on the label is very dangerous. Yet most consumers take the "do not exceed" numbers as the proper dosage that they should be taking.

        • by Headrick (25371)

          I once dated a nurse who told me that acetaminophen was the most common cause of acute liver failure in the ICU.

          People keep popping them because they're over the counter -- they can't be dangerous!

        • It is even worse than what you think it is:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P... [wikipedia.org]

          So I happen to not physically be in America and I was not aware that paracetamol and acetaminophen are the same thing when the doctor asks me if I have taken any Panadol (what? Paracetamol)... so I say no and he proceeds to start pumping a thousand milligrams plus directly into my veins. Yeah, but I had taken Tylenol and some cold medications, which combined, had placed over a thousand milligrams of acetaminophen into my system prev

      • by Rich0 (548339)

        So, as others pointed out acetaminophen is actually fairly dangerous as drugs go. However, let's pick on something like ibuprofen instead which is definitely safer.

        Today even ibuprofen would have trouble making it as a non-prescription drug.

        Pain-killers in general have the deck stacked against them. For something like a heart medication to get on the market you basically have to show that it saves more lives than it takes. So, if it prevents 10k more heart attacks per year than any other drug on the mark

        • by mpe (36238)
          So, as others pointed out acetaminophen is actually fairly dangerous as drugs go. However, let's pick on something like ibuprofen instead which is definitely safer.

          In intersting irony is that many illegal drugs are less dangerous than many available "over the counter".

          Pain-killers in general have the deck stacked against them. For something like a heart medication to get on the market you basically have to show that it saves more lives than it takes. So, if it prevents 10k more heart attacks per year th
      • by Darinbob (1142669)

        It IS a very dangerous drug which. Ironically it became successful as the "safe" alternative to aspirin it is much more deadly. A huge problem is with children's versus infants dosages. There have been decades of delays getting accurate dosage information onto the bottles. The fiction that this is a safe drug is being actively maintained by the major manufacturer's like Tylenol. It was only considered safe in the early days because so little information was known about it.

        We're not talking about just a

      • by sjames (1099)

        That shouldn't be true, but probably would be.

    • Tylenol is in high demand in Cuba. I always buy some as gifts to the hotel staff whenever I visit.

  • by Adam (3469959)
    It can't detect a total waste of money.
    • It can't detect a total waste of money.

      No, clearly not a total waste. They got *several* publications out of this work I'm sure! ... and did you hear where they are having the conference next year? Somewhere exotic I think.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...when the first terrorist decides that the best place to attack is the line (a "queue" to us Royalists) for security?

    Will there be a pre-inspection inspection? Inspections all the way down? Pre-crime profiling? Not allowed to leave your house until you're cleared tor pre-clearing? Just how would the play deal with this sinister turn?

    • by sumdumass (711423)

      They already do this. Check points in Iraq and other countries like Israel are known for being blown up. Buses are more typical because they are enclosed making the blast more effective. The thing is that the death toll usually isn't much higher than a bad car wreck compared to other methods so i think they are targeting the mechanism moreso than what we consider terrorist goals to be. But thats just my limited guess to why they aren't more popular in weatern nations.

      • by bickerdyke (670000) on Friday July 11, 2014 @06:26AM (#47430009)

        if you're considering a large death toll as a terrorist goal, then you're wrong. Terror is the goal, and having people killed are only the means.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Rashdot (845549)

          I believe most bombings are targeted, we just almost never hear who the target was. We just read about some marketplace being blown op, but not who happened to be walking there. Besides, the reasoning could be hard to understand, in some places people can get killed for holding a wrong opinion. Or because someone wants to gain power.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            That depends on how you define 'target'. A terrorist that is using geographical targets (Pentagon) differs to a terrorist that is using 'crowds of people' as targets. But their overall, main target is inflicting terror in people's minds. That's why you don't 'hear' what the 'target' was, the term 'terroris bombing' already explains it.

            • by Rashdot (845549)

              My point is that someone specific in that crowd probably was targeted, but to us the public, it remains a random crowd of people. At least that's what I've been told by someone who was in some special forces somewhere.

              • by mpe (36238)
                My point is that someone specific in that crowd probably was targeted, but to us the public, it remains a random crowd of people.

                That is more a "possibility" rather than a "probability".

                At least that's what I've been told by someone who was in some special forces somewhere.

                You ca't really generalise this to all terrorists. Even those supported by nation states.
          • It's mainly targets and not a single target. Bombing on a bus, mall, disco, market, etc all involve densely packed people to inflict maximum casualties. Please see Boston bombings for example here in America.

            • by Rashdot (845549)

              True, the Boston bombers apparently considered the whole civilized world as enemies.

              But for instance in Lebanon some of the most powerful individuals were killed by bombings. Those were obviously targeted.

              So both are true, but in the west we mostly read about bombings and don't always get to hear who the true target was. Maybe because there's not much point in knowing what local figure was targeted and why.

            • by mpe (36238)
              It's mainly targets and not a single target. Bombing on a bus, mall, disco, market, etc all involve densely packed people to inflict maximum casualties.

              Note that an intended target may be someone from a specific group rather than a specific individual.
        • by ThatsNotPudding (1045640) on Friday July 11, 2014 @07:51AM (#47430199)

          Terror is the goal, and having people killed are only the means.

          Or in the case of Bin Laden, a successful attack would lead to Machiavellian scumbags within the US government turning the country into a police state for power and profit, slowly boiling away the rights and privacies of his real target: the American citizenry (who allowed murderous, abusive foreign policies to be conducted in their name).

          And to this day, they are still running his playbook, with zero intention of ever stopping.

          • Exactly, but in a much larger scale, what US and the west in general has been doing for hundreds of years.

            Disclaimer: I am a Gandhian.

          • you forgot the part about bankrupting the country along the way...

        • by mpe (36238)
          if you're considering a large death toll as a terrorist goal, then you're wrong. Terror is the goal, and having people killed are only the means.

          People tend need to be alive to be terrified.
          Another similar idea is military weapons intended to wound, Since they can potentially remove three times the number of wounded soldiers from the battlefield.
      • by Shoten (260439)

        They already do this. Check points in Iraq and other countries like Israel are known for being blown up. Buses are more typical because they are enclosed making the blast more effective. The thing is that the death toll usually isn't much higher than a bad car wreck compared to other methods so i think they are targeting the mechanism moreso than what we consider terrorist goals to be. But thats just my limited guess to why they aren't more popular in weatern nations.

        The way the Israelis learned to deal with this is very simple. You have a population coming through a checkpoint...almost always, in the case of Israel, a checkpoint between Israel proper and one of the Occupied Territories (Gaza, West Bank). The people coming through are, overwhelmingly, the population from where the risk comes...Palestinians. The cordon is designed so that a suicide bomber will not 1, be able to blow a hole through the barrier that the checkpoint acts as a valve for, and 2, be able to

    • by AK Marc (707885)
      The best plan for taking down the USA is to bomb the lines in 5 major airports at the same time. Denver is one of the largest lines I've ever been in. Kill dozens, injure hundreds.

      After that, they'll move the scan further away from the old lines. About a week later, bomb them there, 5 more different large airports. Probably at the check-in counters.

      Then, 3 more days after the last, go back to the original 5 airports, and car-bomb the line of cars stopping to drop-off/pick-up.

      Air traffic would stop.
  • It's gonna make going through airport security even more fun. Especially for those with pacemakers.

    • by necro81 (917438)
      I'd be skeptical that sticking one hand on a Van DeGraff generator won't do anything for someone with a pacemaker. In order for things to get weird, you need some other part of the body grounded (e.g., the other hand touching earth ground), such that current passes through the person. Just building up a large electrostatic charge on the skin of someone isn't such a big deal, because a pacemaker (and, particularly, its electrodes) are contained within the body. If, as the article suggests, they turn this
      • by sjames (1099)

        If the static voltage is high enough, you don't need to complete a circuit to ground to have a significant current flow. Capacitive effects are more than adequate to give you quite a shock.

  • Its also great for detecting suicide bombers.

  • by Rollgunner (630808) on Friday July 11, 2014 @06:20AM (#47429987)
    Air traveler shocked to find out he was carrying illegal drugs !
  • Scientists have found a way to combine an industrial blender with test subjects; simply pop in the suspect, pulse intermittently for five minutes then place a sample of the fluid in a mass spectrometer to detect explosive residue.

  • Efficiency (Score:4, Funny)

    by Chrisq (894406) on Friday July 11, 2014 @06:29AM (#47430015)
    This could be combined with automatic electrocution if the test turns out to be positive ;-)
  • No need to wait for Fourth of July any more. Once this technology is fully deployed in all airports by TSA you would be seeing this. [google.com]. The large donut and the thick pillar are parts of the Van de Graff generator.
    • by necro81 (917438)

      No need to wait for Fourth of July any more. Once this technology is fully deployed in all airports by TSA you would be seeing this. [google.com]. The large donut and the thick pillar are parts of the Van de Graff generator

      No, they aren't. Those are pictures of Tesla coils. A Van de Graff generator [wikipedia.org] is like an industrial version of rubbing a glass rod with a piece of wool - it works via electrostatics. A Tesla coil [wikipedia.org] is a resonant transformer with a huge turns ratio - it works via magnetic induction.

  • So... am I incorrect in thinking that a decent countermeasure would be to ground yourself in some way? Shoes with a hole in the toe... or if the put a grounding mat on the floor you could have a capacitor in your pocket...

  • "mate, this parrot wouldn't voom if you put 4 million volts through it!"

    apologies to those too young to know Monty Python sketches :)

  • by mark_reh (2015546) on Friday July 11, 2014 @07:24AM (#47430115) Journal

    I suggest that everyone who has to go through the scanner reach down into their pants and stick their finger into their butt hole just before they have to point their finger at the detector.

    • I suggest that everyone who has to go through the scanner reach down into their pants and stick their finger into their butt hole just before they have to point their finger at the detector.

      Why do it yourself, when it only takes a *little* encouragement before THE TSA offers to insert THEIR finger in your butthole?

      Keeping in mind that THE TSA will not stop until their knuckles are knocking your uvula, or further press-the-digit-ation is blocked at their shoulder (whichever comes last).

      • by sjames (1099)

        Why yes, I did eat pork and beans, asparagus and eggs for breakfast, why do you ask?

  • by CyberDruid (201684) on Friday July 11, 2014 @08:14AM (#47430279) Homepage

    I for one, look forward to be electrocuted in loyal service to a totalitarian new world order. This way, they can exert a greater control over their treasonous subjects!

    I certainly hope the recent slander from Snowden will not stop the NSA and other semi-autonomous government organs around the world from keeping a full record of all traces of substances which are found on my body, each time I travel. That will be great in case someone in power is ever questioned and would need to put the offending party in prison or at least character assassinate them!

  • This is intriguing. Jokes about tasers and cattleprods will abound, and it would definitely get plenty of late night comedy attention. But if the science is good, it will have a lot of commercial applications. As the employer of several commercial truck drivers (and a CDL who takes the tests myself), I'd be very interested in having one at the doorway of our employment office (to scare away certain substance abusing job applicants, mainly).

    What it doesn't really address is the "bottleneck" equation at TS

    • Your magic door way to the employment office (with death ray?) will also be good for keeping out anyone with any cash or Tylenol. Are you really prepared to bet you job that you haven't touched either? I'm not suggesting that you use drugs but your money does. American money is so soaked with cocaine you can almost chew it like coca leaves. If the trucking industry is so filled with Drug Addicts maybe the problem is deeper than "scaring away applicants"
      Now, if we can come up with a skin test for prostitute

      • They will be able to detect many substances and do statistics on those. You might test off for drugs if you have a lot of money or handled a lot of money-- assuming you would leave your wallet out of the machine as one does at the airport -- if you handled a lot of money you'd get the extra treatment... in which case wash your hands before you go thru it; then you'll probably fit within the normal levels (assuming they calibrate the machine properly-- so many people use plastic that cash users will stand

        • And this is some how a good thing?

          I'm sure that some law will prohibit forcing people to have their recent diet tested to be a passenger...

          No "law" is going to prevent the TSA from deploying this against everyone who flies
          or takes a train
          or a bus
          or drives
          or uses public buildings
          or looks suspicious
          you know, Terrorists

          • They can't molest people legally-- EXCEPT the TSA. The TSA, NSA, CIA and military are above the laws already.

    • by RockDoctor (15477)

      We've already reached the breakeven point where a suicide bomber can kill more people standing in the incoming security line of the airport than he'd kill bringing down a plane

      Was there ever a time when that wasn't the case? Typical numbers queuing at my local airport (where I start or end intercontinental, but thankfully not American, flights on a monthly basis) are around a hundred, and the maximum size plane they can service is about 150~170. Since not all planes run full, it's probably always been more

  • "explosives, flammable solvents, cocaine...

    Depending on how specific their criteria, and how high they set the detection thresholds, the following people could be in for serious grief:

    1) Gardeners and farmers - (nitrate compounds from fertilizer, + fuel oil from any of a dozen sources)
    2) Painters, mechanics, people with Zippo lighters, people who use hand sanitizer, people who gas up their own vehicles - (flammable solvents)
    3) Anyone who handles paper money (cocaine)

    They'd be better off doing genetic research to figure out how to give us all t

  • In Dubai, they already arrest and convict people if they find race amounts of marijuana on the soles of their shoes, I can only imagine they will be among the first to implement these detectors at their airport so they can have fun arresting even more infidels who come to visit their dystopian tourist trap.
  • Not the least of which are illegal drugs and they wind up on the fingertips!

  • Headline should have been: "Scientists gets Cocaine"

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.

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