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Drugs & Health Blog

How To Stop Illegal Opioids in International Mail—Some Smart Ideas

The NIDA Blog Team

Update: The winner and runner-up of the Opioid Detection Challenge have been announced! Find out who they are below.

Did you know that one way illegal opioids enter the United States is through international mail? Drug traffickers have learned that if they send very small packages of opioids in powdered form, like fentanyl, the drug sometimes goes unnoticed.  

Not only does this bring dangerous drugs into the United States, it also poses risks for the people who handle the mail. For example, if a package breaks and a postal worker accidentally inhales some fentanyl powder, it can be very harmful.

Science to the rescue

The good news is that scientists and technology experts are working to find easier ways to detect these drugs. While NIDA and others are researching health issues related to opioid use, other institutions of the federal government have launched the Opioid Detection Challengea global prize competition for tools and technologies that can quickly detect illegal opioids in international mail.

In Stage 1 of the Challenge, a call went out to universities and technology leaders asking for detailed ideas—and 83 ideas came in. A panel of experts selected eight finalists, who now move on to the next stage of the Challenge.

Here are the ideas from three of the finalists:

  1. Use x-rays and "smart" algorithms: This tool uses machine learning algorithms to “learn” from experience (without help from people) how to detect suspicious items. It applies those algorithms to images captured by two x-ray beams that scan a package from different angles.    
  2. Detect nitrogen: This solution uses radio-frequency pulses to find specific molecules that contain nitrogen. Opioid molecules contain nitrogen, and illegal opioids resonate at different radio frequencies—so they can be detected.
  3. Use x-ray diffraction: This technology diffracts (spreads) a broad-spectrum x-ray beam over a package to quickly detect its contents. (X-rays can detect chemicals by “seeing” how the atoms in a substance are arranged.) Then, the diffraction patterns are compared with patterns that are created by illegal drugs.

To see all the finalists’ ideas, visit the Opioid Detection Challenge website.

What happens next?

In Stage 2 of the Challenge, the finalists will develop their plans into real tools. Then, they’ll test the tools for a panel of judges.

The winning ideas may help reduce the flow of illegal opioids through the mail—just one more way that science is helping to save lives every day. When the winners are announced, we’ll tell you about it!

UPDATE (Dec. 12, 2019): Winners announced!

The grand prize winner’s idea adapts the technology used for screening baggage in airports. It combines a 3D X-ray computed tomography (CT) scanner with detection algorithms to scan a package’s contents and spot abnormalities in X-ray images.

The runner-up is based on quadrupole resonance technology (originally developed in the 1980s to detect explosives). It uses radio-frequency signals to search for specific materials, and triggers an alarm when it detects a signal associated with an illegal substance.

Read more about the winner and runner-up here.

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.

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