Everyone outside the toxicology field seems to believe the forensic toxicology laboratory can identify any drug or compound of interest with a simple push of a button.
Popular belief is that a lab can obtain an unknown sample, analyze it, and have a report printed out – complete with pictures, graphs, chemical structures, and compound identifications – in a matter of minutes.
However, those of us in the field know that the challenges many forensic toxicology labs include: limited resources, increasing demands, emergence of new “designer” drugs, and an increasingly larger number of samples being submitted for analysis.
Toxicology results and scientific evidence are getting more scrutiny than ever before. The criminal justice system increasingly relies on the output of forensic toxicology laboratories to provide evidence relevant to forensic cases, including homicides, sexual assaults, and impaired driving linked to fatalities.
Defense attorneys are quick to jump on any uncertainty that can be considered “reasonable doubt,” which is combined with a perception and expectation that the evidence should leave no unanswered questions.
All these issues merge and place a heavy burden on forensic toxicology labs to analyze an increasingly larger number of samples in a shorter time, while maintaining accurate results that can survive legal scrutiny.
Fortunately, there is a fundamental shift occurring in the forensic toxicology field, and this article delves into the dynamics of the changes.
Affecting virtually all forensic toxicology laboratories one way or another, the changes occurring in forensic toxicology are due largely to advances in technology. Although there is a comfort level with the way toxicology testing has traditionally been done, the transition to newer, easier-to-use, more powerful technologies is helping improve the way analyses are performed.
As forensic toxicologists assess their own needs to improve and map out the direction their laboratories are headed, it is useful to review the issues that, despite being somewhat daunting, need to be addressed. The main issues include: • New derivatives of drugs of abuse continue to come onto the market, and methods to test for these drugs must be quickly developed.
- A shortage of licensed scientists persists.
- A regulatory compliance paradox must be addressed by government entities.
- Detection of low concentration, potent drugs in the presence of high concentrations of therapeutic drugs.
INCREASING VARIETY OF DRUGS OF ABUSE
New drugs continue to emerge at an alarming rate. Just when a toxicology laboratory director thinks his or her database of drug information is up-to-date, new drugs or new derivatives of drugs emerge and create new identification challenges.
An analytical technique should be able to detect trace levels of drugs, even if present along with large concentrations of other drugs. Sensitivity and selectivity are crucial.
If an instrument or technique used to test for the drugs is not selective or sensitive enough, it is possible to miss the fact that four or five drugs are actually present in a person’s blood stream. This error is often caused because the current database cannot detect and identify the foreign substances or the concentrations of certain drugs are so low that they are below the detection limits of many techniques.
Toxicologists are continually thinking about how to expand their databases with more compounds. Or they dream of a built-in library to screen for hundreds of drugs of abuse, drug metabo-lites, and poisons.
The more automated the search of compounds within a sufficiently comprehensive library can be, the more efficiently the lab technicians can obtain the most accurate results that can be used to substantiate finds in a court of law.