Israel Trains Mice to Sniff Out Drugs

By May Wilkerson 11/16/12

The rodents' tiny size and powerful nostrils could make them traffickers' worst nightmare.

Drug dogs could soon face unemployment.
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International drug warriors could soon be recruiting legions of tiny, furry counter-narcotic agents: mice. The creatures often get a bum rap, but possess a powerful sense of smell that may soon be used to detect drugs, explosives and other hazardous items at airports, docks and border-crossings. Eran Lumbroso, founder and chief technology officer of Israeli firm BioExplorers, devised this strategy in 2000 after a string of suicide bombings on Israeli buses. “I was in the army at the time, and the idea emerged to use small animals instead of dogs in detecting suicide bombers,” he says. After experimenting with various animals, Lumbroso chose mice because they're less intrusive and intimidating than dogs, and have a stronger sense of smell; they're also easy to train and can be deployed in larger numbers. Lumbroso's screening system involves a traveler passing through a booth containing three microwave-like mouse chambers. A burst of air passes over the traveler and into one of the chambers; if the furry agents pick up a problem scent, they set off an alert by scurrying into a separate compartment. During a 2010 test of the system outside a Tel Aviv mall, 1,200 people passed through the booth: the critters detected suspicious material on all 20 test subjects—with only one false alarm. Lumbroso believes the system could eventually be used to scout out more than just smugglers: ”People in the early stages of breast and lung cancer exhale certain particles,” he said. “The mice could be trained to sniff them out.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.