Andy Extance explains how volunteers are using analytical chemistry to help keep festival-goers safe
Imagine that you, like millions of people in the UK each year, are at a music festival. You emerge from your muddy tent into music, sunshine and fun – including the temptations of alcohol and even illegal drugs. But such temptations can turn the fun to tragedy, as happened in the case of 18-year-old Christian Pay at the Kendal Calling festival in Cumbria. Like most users, he was unaware of exactly what was in what he thought were ecstasy pills – and what they contained killed him.
In your class
Download the text of this article, and all the related teaching resources, worksheets and experiments from the Education in Chemistry website: rsc.li/EiC517kyp
This article discusses many topics covered in intermediate and advanced level chemistry courses including chemical and spectroscopic analysis. It provides one interesting context to these topics and highlights ethical issues scientists can face. Pupils preparing for interviews for medicine, pharmacy or other areas where confident discussion of the ethical considerations of scientific thought and action is desired may find this useful. The narrative could be handy for form time, PSHE or even assemblies.
Risks like this motivated chemist Guy Jones to exploit the expertise gained from his weekday job working for an analytical equipment supplier. For years, at weekends, he has been volunteering to help drug users stay safer at music festivals.
In 2012, he signed up with the charity Kosmicaid to care for festival-goers having a bad time after taking drugs. Helping people who ‘aimed for the moon and overshot’ was fulfilling, but also frustrating, because he couldn’t prevent them ending up in the welfare tent in the first place.
Guy therefore set up a website offering chemistry-based tests so people could check their drugs themselves, at home. It turned into the company Reagent Tests UK, which sells liquids that react with drugs and change colour for a few pence a test. ‘They change colour roughly according to the functional groups in the molecule,’ Guy explains. ‘We give a reference chart that lists a number of drug compounds along the left hand side and then you follow it across to see what colour it should go. If it changes to a different colour people immediately know that they don’t have the drug they expect.’
Chemical analysis experiments, ages 11–14 and 14–16
Guy set up a website offering simple chemical tests that can identify drugs by producing a colour change. Simple test tube analysis lends itself to practical work, but can often feel like a series of facts to learn. Questions in this area are becoming increasingly sophisticated, using contexts to ask pupils to plan an analysis that distinguishes between different samples.
The accompanying resources get students doing detective work with chemical tests. They provide scaffolding and support for lower achieving or younger students and a challenge for those who have significant prior knowledge and need to practice the skill of planning. As some foodstuffs are included in the mixtures, food tests are included to provide a cross-curricular resource that may be particularly useful for double science classes.
Download the student handouts and teacher notes from the Education in Chemistry website: rsc.li/EiC517kyp
While this tells people whether they have the drug they think they do, better analysis is still needed. That’s because pills and powders often contain more than just one substance, as Ian Blagbrough’s team at the University of Bath has shown using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. They get samples of drugs from amnesty bins at Glastonbury and in night clubs, from Avon and Somerset police.
‘The mixtures are complex and often not good for you,’ Ian says. He emphasises stories of drug dealers mixing their product with powdered glass are not true. Instead, they use cutting agents like sugar and creatine, a molecule sold legally to help with body-building, to bulk out pills or powders. They also often mix in other cheaper and easier-to-get drugs, including formerly legal highs – known as novel psychoactive substances (NPS) – which are now banned.
This is apparently what killed Christian Pay. His pills did contain some MDMA, the molecule commonly known as ecstasy, but they also contained PMA, which has been involved in a number of deaths in the UK, peaking at 29 in 2013, but down to three in 2016.
Similarly, the Bath scientists have found samples of the NPS flephedrone mixed with benzocaine, a cheap local anaesthetic drug used in cough sweets. ‘It is in there to fool you’, Ian says. It makes your face tingle but doesn’t get you high. Worse still, it’s in flephedrone samples in such high amounts it could cause internal bleeding. ‘You’re meant to be taking 1-2 mg of benzocaine, not 50-100 mg.’
In the loop
Such dangerous doses are what often cause harm with drugs, be they legal or illegal. ‘Two paracetamol will take away the headache, but 32 will kill you,’ Ian stresses. ‘It’s all about dose. If you go and buy ecstasy in nightclubs, you don’t know the dose.’ Ian’s team’s work supports those concerns: they’ve found some ecstasy tablets contain twice as much MDMA as others.
And it’s to help reduce the harms of unknown mixtures and doses that Guy has embarked on his current chemical festival adventures. In 2013, an unusual new drug testing charity, The Loop, appeared at nightclubs, and then at the 2014 Parklife festival in Manchester. Guy heard about its work and approached the director and University of Durham criminologist, Fiona Measham, to see if he could help. He now puts his scientific skills to use as a senior chemist for the charity.
Fiona had previously followed police testers at events in their large mobile labs, watching the chemistry tests they used for evidence and intelligence. She realised that offering festival-goers similar testing could help reduce harm from contaminated or strong drugs. She set up The Loop to inform users about the true content of the substances they might take.
Yet progress was slow at first. The Loop was initially only allowed to support emergency services at festivals that weren’t big enough for the official police labs to attend. But through this work, they proved the tests were good enough and overcame legal questions around offering drug checking directly to festival-goers. They could also already point to other evidence that such systems helped.
The ‘drug checking’ idea seemed radical in the UK when Fiona first started pushing it because nothing similar had ever existed in the country. But in Spain, Energy Control has tested drugs and offered users advice since 1999. Many other European countries today have similar services.
For example, groups in Austria and Switzerland use chromatography for their testing. In liquid and gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (LCMS and GCMS), molecules stick to the solid columns more or less strongly depending on their structure. The molecules in a drug sample move at different speeds, as gas or liquid flows down the column, and get separated. When, one by one, the molecules finally reach the column’s end, a mass spectrometer measures their molecular weight, giving an important clue to their identity.
Matching molecular fingerprints
Spectroscopy activity or homework, age 16–18
Advanced chemistry courses cover all the spectroscopy techniques mentioned in this article.
Ian Blagbrough’s team at the University of Bath have found unexpected substances mixed with drugs including painkillers. The Bath team can identify what’s in the mixtures from the spectra they produce. This activity asks pupils to match the peaks in infrared, 1H NMR, 13C NMR and mass spectra for paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin with the functional groups present in these molecules.
There is also a wealth of resources to support spectroscopy teaching on the Learn Chemistry site. Most of these are within SpectraSchool: rsc.li/spectraschool
There is also a wealth of resources to support spectroscopy teaching on the Learn Chemistry site. Most of these are within SpectraSchool.
Pupils can get hands on experience of spectroscopy with the Royal Society of Chemistry’s spectroscopy in a suitcase scheme (SIAS). Find out how to book at rsc.li/sias
Download the student handout from the Education in Chemistry website: rsc.li/EiC517kyp
To do this, Austrian service ChEckiT! uses a converted van as its lab. That’s partly because its old but affordable chromatography equipment is difficult to move – weighing as much as a small person – and takes hours to set up. And then if it’s disturbed, perhaps by an accidental nudge, it needs lengthy retuning. Chromatography is also slow, and together these issues make it hard to meet demand.
So The Loop uses briefcase-sized infrared (IR) spectrometers instead. They’re easy to use, as samples can be put straight on their ‘testing stage’ after being crushed. Guy compares an IR spectrometer to how we see something blue in white light because it absorbs all the other colours and reflects blue. The spectrometer shines several shades, or wavelengths, of IR light one by one at the sample and measures how strongly each wavelength is absorbed. ‘It does that in about 30 seconds’ Guy explains. The spectrum showing absorption at each wavelength depends on the bonds within the molecule and is unique for each substance, like a fingerprint is for a person.
An uncertain start
At his first event for The Loop, the lack of separation step worried Guy. ‘I thought, “Really, is this going to work?”,’ he recalls. ‘Nobody else was doing infrared for drug checking.’
Ian Blagbrough also has doubts about using IR spectroscopy for drug analysis. ‘The strengths are it only requires a tiny amount, and it’s rapid,’ he says. ‘But it’s looking at the spectrum against a database. That is a weakness, because there are lots of new drugs not in the database. And then if you have a mixture of two things in the database you might not pick either up.’ That’s why Ian prefers NMR, which is similar to IR spectroscopy in producing a fingerprint-like spectrum, but with radio waves rather than light. However, NMR instruments are even bigger than GCMS ones. ‘Obviously you can’t do that in a nightclub or at a festival,’ Ian concedes.
The Bruker Alpha IR spectrometers The Loop uses quickly won Guy over. ‘I have been just blown away’, he remarks. When testing mixtures, they use sophisticated software to identify different components in the spectrum. The system’s database includes mixtures, adds Henry Fisher, who is policy director of drug think tank Volteface and also a senior chemist for The Loop. For example, there’s a reference spectrum for a 1:1 mixture of cocaine and benzocaine. A 60:40 sample gives a close match to this reference, Henry says.
Hard to take
Finally, at the Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling in 2016, The Loop was able bring its services directly to festival-goers. Ecstasy is one of the drugs The Loop sees most, alongside cocaine and ketamine, and it does vital work estimating ecstasy pill doses. It estimates doses using a simple mass loss test on pills handed over by festivalgoers anonymously. Henry, Guy and the team crush the pills and dissolve the drug molecules using methanol, leaving only inactive cutting agents and dyes behind. The difference between the pill’s mass before and after washing gives a dose estimate. ‘It’s very low-tech, but it’s very reliable,’ Henry says.
Mass loss test science club activity, ages 16-18
Another method of analysis described in the article is a simple mass loss test. This would make an interesting investigation for a science club. The article makes good pre-reading and the pupils can carry out their own mass loss tests using tablets they are familiar with.
One batch of pills handed to The Loop at the Secret Garden Party 2016 was particularly strange. ‘When we tried to crush it, we couldn’t figure out why it was so hard,’ Henry recalls. ‘When we came to analyse it, we realised it was solid concrete. We’ve also had antimalarial tablets crushed up and boric acid sold as cocaine. That’s unpleasant, especially if they take a lot because it’s not doing anything. We also often get paracetamol. It’s not just professional criminals, it’s also probably chancers who realise they’ve got a packet of paracetamol they can sell to make their festival ticket price back.’
This year, The Loop added Boomtown to the festivals it checks at, and hopes to do four more.
It is also introducing a new MDMA dose-finding method that should be more accurate: ultraviolet (UV) light absorption. The Loop team first weighs, crushes and checks to see a pill contains MDMA using the IR spectrometer. They then put it in a tube and add a certain amount of solvent depending on the pill’s weight. Finally, they put it in the spectrometer, which measures how much ultraviolet light it absorbs. By comparing the pill’s spectrum with a calibration curve, a spectrum for a known amount of MDMA, they can work out how much was in the pill.
The goal is to give people useful information. ‘They need to know if their pill is a typical MDMA dose or more,’ Henry says. ‘We can then give advice, like that they split them in quarters if they do take them.’
Reading for understanding
DART comprehension exercise, age 16–18
Literacy is important for success in all examinations and for wider success in school and the workplace. Reading scientific articles can be challenging for pupils and it is useful to scaffold their reading with questions to help their comprehension. This exercise uses focused questioning to help students develop understanding of the key ideas in the article.
Download the student handout and teacher notes from the Education in Chemistry website: rsc.li/EiC517kyp
Chemistry starts conversations
People were cautious about using The Loop’s drug checking service at first, Henry adds. ‘But as they realised we were genuinely offering this service with police support, they were enthusiastic,’ he says. ‘When we give them their results back you have some groups where you hear a cheer. With other groups there’s an awkward silence, when they’ve just found out that they’ve been putting boric acid up their nose.’
If the drugs aren’t what people hoped, they often hand them over to The Loop. ‘Sometimes they’ve said they’ll go and have a word with their dealer,’ Henry says. ‘That means our information is having a knock-on effect.’
The confidential 10-minute chat about reducing risks of taking drugs that comes with the results is exactly what Guy had long wanted to give people. ‘My initial concern was they’re not going to listen, but because they’ve given us the drugs there’s no reason to hide anything so they can have a really honest conversation.’
What would the advice be for a GCSE student, for example? ‘There’s no such thing as safe drug use,’ Henry begins. ‘Any drug use carries some risks. The way you reduce those risks is learning more about the substances. Read useful harm reduction advice.’
‘But I’d also recommend that these drugs are particularly risky for people under 18. Your brains are still developing and you’re smaller and lighter than a full-grown adult. Consequently, a smaller amount is going to have more of an effect. You’re less familiar with dealing with that experience and so it becomes a much riskier thing to do if you’re underage. I’d really advise against taking these substances at that age.’
Article by Andy Extance, a science writer based in Exeter, UK. Teaching resources by Kristy Turner, a school teacher fellow at the University of Manchester and Bolton School, UK
Downloads available for this article
- Full article, without resources or notes (MS Word or pdf)
- All the teaching ideas in a single file (MS Word or pdf)
- Chemical analysis experiment 11-14 student handout (MS Word or pdf)
- Chemical analysis experiment 14-16 student handout (MS Word or pdf)
- Chemical analysis experiment teacher notes (MS Word or pdf)
- Spectroscopy activity or homework (MS Word or pdf)
- Mass loss test science club activity student handout (MS Word or pdf)
- Mass loss test science club activity teacher notes (MS Word or pdf)
- DART comprehension student handout (MS Word or pdf)
- DART comprehension teacher notes (MS Word or pdf)
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