High-tech mobile lab identifies fentanyl on the spot ― and fits in the palm of your hand

Some of Hawaii’s first responders are now using a high-tech tool to protect themselves from fentanyl exposure on the job.
Published: Nov. 1, 2022 at 4:03 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 1, 2022 at 7:33 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Some of Hawaii’s first responders are now using a high-tech tool to protect themselves from fentanyl exposure on the job.

It’s a mobile laboratory that can identify a variety of different drugs ― and results are available in seconds.

It’s called a TruNarc portable spectrometer and it allows first responders know what kind of drug they’re dealing with without ever having to touch it. That’s especially valuable given how widespread fentanyl has become.

“According to the manufacturer you can do it through a zip lock bag,” said Gary Yabuta.

Yabuta, the head of Hawaii’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, says the portable spectrometer has become a tool first responders are constantly turning to.

“Not only for overdose deaths,” he said. “But law enforcement use it when they recover suspected illicit drugs from a crime scene. It’s simple. Easy to carry.”

And highly effective.

Here’s how it works:

“It has a lens that you put the specimen directly on,” Yabuta said.

To demonstrate, he pressed a counterfeit oxycodone pill that was confiscated in Hawaii onto the side of the device.

Less than a minute later, the word fentanyl appeared on the screen.

“We have a positive analysis for fentanyl,” Yabuta announced.

He says the information is critical to keep a scene safe.

But it’s far from the only precaution first responders are taking.

“Typically for us, we’re always going to be gloved, gowned if necessary. And definitely wearing a mask,” said Honolulu EMS paramedic Manahel Al-Hozail.

Over the past couple months, Al-Hozail says she’s seen an uptick in overdose calls.

Data collected by the Department of Health shows a similar trend.

Between October 2021 and September of this year, EMS was called to a total of 132 fentanyl-related overdoses.

Nearly 20% of those calls, or 24 overdoses, happened in September alone.

“As far as scene safety we try not to touch anything without gloves or tools,” said Al-Hozail. “If it’s a situation where it’s a great scale (of a suspected drug) we will not enter until it’s deemed safe by a HAZMAT team.”

Many local, state and federal law enforcement agencies now carry portable spectrometers. Honolulu fire’s HAZMAT team also uses the device.

“That will give them the information necessary to really quarantine the area,” Yabuta said.

According to Yabuta, the TruNarc costs about $30,000.