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Drug Testing News

Ecstasy testing kits prove unreliable


16:25 25 February 03

NewScientist.com news service

Ecstasy testing kits, used by clubbers to screen out dud pills are unreliable, according to a "blind" test of pills with known ingredients.

Testing kits based on reagents that change colour in the presence of chemicals in the ecstasy family are available around the world, mainly via the internet. They typically consist of one to three small chemical bottles and are designed to be portable, so that the user can carry out a test in the toilet of a nightclub for example.

The kits, which can test up to 150 pills, do not claim to measure the dosage or purity of a pill, but simply the presence or absence of MDMA - the chemical name for ecstasy - or very similar compounds. Clubbers use them to screen out pills that are likely to contain other, potentially more dangerous, substances. PMA, for example, is sometimes sold as ecstasy but has been associated with several deaths in the US, Europe and Australia.

The experiments revealing the unreliability of the tests were carried out by Rebecca Murray and colleagues at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "This is going to create a false sense of security," she told New Scientist. Murray believes the kits performed badly because the colour charts provided do not match well with the colours actually observed. Also, assessing the changes is very subjective and especially challenging if lighting conditions vary.

Better than nothing

"We'll be the first to admit that ecstasy testing kits are not terribly accurate," says Ian Baker, of DanceSafe, the San Francisco charity that supplied the test kits. "The instructions for the kit very explicitly state its limitations."

But while ecstasy remains illegal, he says, a fallible test is better than no test at all. "We try very hard to avoid giving users a false sense of security." The group sell a few hundred kits a month in the US.

Murray's team gave eight pills each to two testers who had never used the kits before. The experiments were "blind" - the researchers knew what was in the pills but the testers did not. Two of the tablets contained MDMA, while the rest were composed of other compounds sometimes found in pills such as ketamine, morphine, caffeine and d-norpropoxyphene.

The first tester rated seven of the pills, including both the MDMA tablets, as not containing the drug, the researchers told the American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference in Chicago last week. The one pill the tester believed had tested positive in fact contained morphine.

Pushing purity

In contrast, the second tester thought six samples contained MDMA, rating the ketamine and d-norpropoxyphene tablets as negative. One of the testers, University of Florida toxicologist Bruce Goldberger, says: "I failed miserably."

However, testing kits have had a noticeable effect on pill purity, says Matthew Atha, director of the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit, based in Wigan, UK. "The number of duds has dropped," he says.

Amsterdam based company EZ Test were the first to start marketing the kits and have sold about 300,000 tests worldwide in the past six years. "There are no 'good' pills," says Ewoud Vijfwinkel of EZ Test. "All we can give is an indication as to what is inside, that's a lot more reliable than a dealer's word on quality."