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UNC Street Drug Analysis Lab anonymously tests substances

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Erin Tracy poses for a portrait in front of her work station in the UNC Street Drug Analysis Lab on Tuesday, April 9, 2024.

The UNC Street Drug Analysis Lab anonymously tests substances to see if they are laced with outside substances, like fentanyl. Scientists then upload the results onto their website, which can be accessed by the public. 

Located in Caudill Labs, the program has gained national attention since it was founded by Nabarun Dasgupta, a senior scientist at the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center in 2022. The lab partners with different programs throughout the community — including syringe service programs, drug user unions, local health departments and opioid treatment providers.

“What we do is get people's results in a very quick manner so that they can make better decisions about what they are putting in their bodies,” Dasgupta said.

After reaching out to the lab, organizations that want to partner with the initiative must first be vetted by the lab's community liaison Colin Miller.The lab does not publicly share the programs that they work with, but Miller said a number of them are North Carolina-based syringe service programs and local health departments.

After being approved, the lab sends the partnering organizations kits that include a card for the drug user to fill out identifying the expected drug and the method and its form — including pills, powder and liquids — along with sensations the consumer may have felt if the drug has already been taken.

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Photo of the kit courtesy of Natalie McCormick.

Individuals who get their drugs tested put a small amount of the substance into a lab-provided vile of acetonitrile, a liquid that renders the substance unusable, before the kit is sent back to the lab for testing.

“We make it a requirement of the programs that we work with that they do not collect any personal information,” Miller said. “So people that are dropping these drugs off, as far as the samples go, they don’t have to give any name or identifying information at all.”

The lab analyzes its samples using a Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometer, an instrument that separates components in a mixture before identifying them. This is how substances within the drug are identified. 

The lab received funding from the NC General Assembly in February under the opioid settlement fund via NC Collaboratory for their own testing machine, which was recently installed in the lab. Previously, they rented time from UNC's chemistry department, Erin Tracy, a research chemist within the lab, said

While testing substances, Tracy receives the test kits and transfers them from their sample vials to instrument vials before they are put on the machine and compared to known reference materials.

“Pretty much any sort of novel, psychoactive substance, we’ll purchase a reference standard for it, so we’re essentially comparing our unknown sample to our known reference material," she said

Each kit also comes with a small card that has a printed number on it. People who submit drugs to the lab will use this number to identify the results, which are posted directly onto their website under the “Lab Results” tab within a couple days of arriving in the lab. 

These results list major substances that were detected, as well as explain when certain drugs — such as Fentanyl or Xylazine — are found in the sample. Every post ends with a disclaimer that says, “Need free supplies and advice to keep you safe? Find your nearest harm reduction program at harmreduction.org.”

Dasgupta said that the most common reaction people have after finding out this information is that they did not know what they were putting into their bodies and they are no longer interested in taking the drug.

In Tracy’s office, she has saved some of the boxes the lab has received with doodles on them, thanking them for the work that they are doing.

“It’s nice to feel like we’re doing community education and to allow people to understand what the drug landscape actually is, free from other outside influences whether that be law enforcement or media or to say ‘This is the science,’ and this is what is in our communities and then to help people stay safe and stay alive,” Tracy said.

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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