Chemical Warfare Tool Provides Lifesaving Info About What’s In Your Drugs

By Victoria Kim 10/15/19

The MX908 can detect 70 types of fentanyl as well as more than 2,000 yet-unidentified fentanyl analogs.

worker creating chemical warfare tool
ID 128463396 © Kiryl Balbatunou |

A machine intended for use by military and emergency personnel who handle hazardous material has become a lifesaving tool amid the fentanyl epidemic.

The MX908 mass spectrometer was first marketed as a tool for “elite responders conducting chemical, explosive, priority drug and HazMat operations around the world.” But in places like Boston and Chicago, the machine is a harm reduction tool.

The MX908 can detect 70 types of fentanyl as well as more than 2,000 yet-unidentified fentanyl analogs.

WBUR witnessed the machine in action as Sarah Mackin of the Boston Public Health Commission tested a swab sample from the inside of a baggie “that was sold as heroin.”

“So, there’s multiple kinds of opioid analgesics and multiple kinds of synthetic fentanyls in this sample that was sold as heroin,” she said. “It’s kind of an example of what the drug landscape looks like here.”

Testing Fentanyl 

This summer, Massachusetts health officials reported that the presence of fentanyl in the state had reached “an all-time high” despite a decrease in overall opioid-related deaths in 2019.

One woman named “Bri” who tested drug residue using the machine in July suspected that carfentanil was present in her personal stash and triggered a previous overdose. “Now I’m going to be honest. If I was sick and I had one bag of dope on me and you told me there’s carfentanil in there, I’m not going to lie and say I wouldn’t use it. But I would know not to put the entire thing in,” she told WBUR.

Proponents of the MX908 say that by having access to clear information about their drugs, people like Bri are empowered, in a way, to mitigate their risk and avoid overdose.

The Chicago Recovery Alliance invested in two MX908s as part of its new drug-checking program that launched in March.

Pricey & Legal-ish

However, those seeking to make the machine available to more people are hindered by the “legal gray area” of drug checking and its hefty price tag. One machine costs $65,000.

A trial of the MX908 in Boston is currently on hold while they determine if the practice is legal.

As WBUR notes, fentanyl test strips are a much more cost-effective method of detecting fentanyl, at $1 per strip.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr