Countering Clandestine Chemistry

David Pugh2

by David Pugh

Should we use science for good or evil? History is filled with examples of both, for every malaria vaccine, energy efficient car or mobile phone; there is an atomic bomb, chemical weapon or human experiment to counter it. If used correctly, science gives people the power to make the world a much better place, however, it is increasingly used for the wrong reasons.

A clandestine laboratory is a concealed environment in which synthetic organic chemistry is used to produce often-illegal substances. Due to the limited equipment required for such reactions, these laboratories can pop up almost anywhere, including; cars, caravans, self storage units, hotel rooms, rented accommodation and even schools. Over half of these laboratories produce methamphetamine, a class A psychostimulant drug. An increasing amount of Illegal labs produce prescription medications, for sale online and on the black market. With prescription prices increasing world wide, there is a lot of money to be made from such a business.

While the idea of cheaper medication sounds great in principle, illegal production plants are not monitored by any governmental body, meaning they have no health and safety standards, requirements for the cleanliness of equipment or the source of raw ingredients (bleach and plant fertilisers are the most common source of raw materials in such labs).

Photo: Kent Valentine via Flickr
Photo: Kent Valentine via Flickr

In addition to the often, poor working conditions found in such environments, uncontrolled labs are unlikely to have access to expensive instruments that the pharmaceutical industry uses to confirm the purity of their products. As a result home-made pharmaceuticals are often found to contain chalk, talcum powder as well as pharmaceutically active ingredients.

During 2008 in Changzhou, China there were at least 81 reported deaths due to the ingestion of a counterfeit version of the blood thinning medication heparin, in which the active ingredient had been replaced.

The danger clandestine laboratories pose to their immediate environment is also of great concern. Many chemical reactions produce toxic, flammable and explosive gases, and for that reason in industry these reactions take place in fume cupboards and cabinets. However, if such reactions are taking place in a caravan, or in your neighbours loft, such safety precautions are unlikely to be in place, there have been numerous explosions as a result of the uncontrolled ignition of flammable gasses and explosive chemicals.

Unfortunately, because so many of these environments operate behind closed doors, detection of these hidden laboratories is very tricky. Often it is not till an area is inspected for other reasons (such as a domestic disturbance or routine inspection) that a laboratory is discovered. Worryingly more than half are discovered after a resulting fire or explosion.

While early detection of such labs is by no means easy, it is not impossible and there are a number of methods in development. Gas sensors are a growing market, with recent advances in environmental monitoring and the detection of stomach cancer in breath samples. Gas sensors are electronic sniffer dogs, however while dogs need food, water and an experienced trainer, electronic gas sensors do not. While such sensors do not have the super sensitivity of a dogs nose they are able to distinguish between gases and different concentrations.

Semiconducting gas sensors have a resistivity that is sensitive to gases in the air, meaning that the current that is able to pass through such material is changed when gases react with the surface of the semiconductor. This reaction is quantifiable and data can be transmitted wirelessly. Gas selectivity in semiconducting sensors is achieved using zeolite structures as molecular sieves, to filter out unwanted gases.

Researchers are using such devices to produce a discrete smoke alarm like detector for use in well known clandestine locations, where offenders conducting such synthesis can be detected early, and the environment made safe.

This story illustrates one example of the continual battle that plays out between the good and evil sides of science. With the continual support of the public, government and funding agencies, we can only hope good science will prosper in the long term.

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David Pugh (@Daveeeeeeeee) is a PhD student in solid state chemistry at University College London, UK
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