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OSU-CHS researcher seeks to improve detection of drug, explosives labs

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Jarrad Wagner, Ph.D., wants to improve the tools used in detecting the presence of illegal drugs or explosives in homes and other locations where production is suspected.

“We recently completed a research project that detected drug residues in homes and on cell phones. We don’t know where these environmental drug residues are coming from, but it is well known that clandestine laboratories will contaminate homes where they are set up,” said Wagner, director of the Forensic Toxicology and Trace Chemistry Laboratory and associate professor of forensic sciences at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences. “Our research has shown that we are able to detect the presence of illegal drugs and explosives by swabbing the walls and other interior surfaces, even after the labs have been removed.

Clandestine laboratories present significant safety and health risks to law enforcement, the public and the environment. Biological and chemical agents that can be toxic when mixed are used in the production of both illegal drugs and improvised explosives. For every pound of methamphetamine produced in a drug lab, there are five to seven pounds of toxic waste, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

“Our purpose is to assist law enforcement in protecting communities from potential harm from these dangerous substances,” said Wagner, who previously served as a chemist for the FBI laboratory where he worked on crime scene investigations that involved hazardous materials.

Wagner conducts research with the OSU-CHS Center for Improvised Explosives, or IMPEX, to develop tools that can better detect explosives labs and more safely remove the unstable materials from the location.

“We are conducting cutting-edge research at IMPEX aimed at discovering clandestine explosives labs before an incident occurs,” he said. “If there is an incident, we want to be able to determine what explosive materials were used as soon as possible and determine how they interact.”

In his role with the OSU-CHS Forensic Toxicology and Trace Chemistry Lab, Wagner’s research is centered on analyzing the chemistry of illegal drugs such as bath salts, synthetic marijuana and methamphetamine-like drugs. Drug formulas evolve as new varieties of illicit drugs are put into society. These emerging drug trends are an important aspect of public health.

Wagner’s research may lead to the development of tests to detect the newest drugs in casework, whether in forensic or clinical testing of bodily fluids.

“We need to understand what causes the dangerous side effects from these compounds so that medical interventions can be developed,” he said. “In the future, this knowledge will be taught to medical students to keep them up-to-date on the latest drugs patients are using.”

The overall goal of Wagner’s research is to protect public health by reducing exposure to toxic compounds and to increase law enforcement’s ability to detect criminal activity and identify perpetrators.

“Our desire is to improve the quality of life for Oklahomans and people throughout the world,” he said.

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