Innovations in Forensic Examination of Seized Drugs and Forensic Toxicology

Thought LeadersDr. Michelle PeaceForensic Scientist Virginia Commonwealth University

In this interview, News-Medical Life Sciences talks to Michelle Peace on her Pittcon presentation in the session, "Innovations in Forensic Examination of Seized Drugs and Forensic Toxicology". Her presentation is entitled "A Six-year Retrospective of the Untargeted Chemical Analysis of E-liquid Compositions: The Trends and Issues".

What are some trends in the forensic examination of seized drugs in the field of forensic toxicology?

There are two big, current trends that are entwined, one of which is a move towards the adoption of faster, more sensitive instrumentation.

This is going to give examiners a more complete data set to identify unknown substances; for example, time-of-flight and Q-trap mass spectrometry and LC tandem MS, which are being adopted in the forensic toxicology industry.

It is entwined with a second trend because more sensitive and structure elucidating analyses are needed due to the current rising epidemic in novel psychoactive substances (NPSs, historically referred to as ‘designer drugs’).

NPSs are chemicals used for some kind of psychoactive effect. It is important to remember that oftentimes these chemicals are specifically manufactured to not be illegal. In the United States, they are not always identified on the Controlled Substances Act as being an illicit substance.

These new or novel psychoactive substances have an array of different chemical structures, some of them being very similar in chemical structure.

Identifying these unknown chemicals has become very challenging, particularly in forensic toxicology labs without sensitive and specific instrumentation that allows them to elucidate that molecular structure.

Image Credit: Elpisterra /

You recently published a study titled ‘The analysis of commercially available natural products recommended for use in electronic cigarettes.’ Can you tell us more about these natural products and their role in e-cigarettes?

My research in electronic cigarettes, their use, and their adoption for other substances started began before electronic cigarette technology began to be used to vape other substances. My laboratory refers to them as ‘DOTNs’ or ‘drugs other than nicotine.’

Something we saw early in the evolution of the e-cigarette device was a trend towards users wanting to be able to modify the device to have a different experience, whether that was with nicotine itself or with other substances.

The electronic cigarette evolved and other industries saw the electronic cigarette as a viable tool for the delivery of pharmacologically active substances such as vitamins, caffeine and herbal remedies.

As part of the grant that we have received from the National Institute of Justice, we began looking at the different ways that electronic cigarettes were being used and what other substances were in them.

We found that a handful of companies were targeting herbal products and natural remedies, so we began monitoring them and purchasing some of these products.

We started to ask what was in these natural products and what chemical agent is causing a psychoactive or physiological response. Our focus was on identifying the active ingredient and whether or not the electronic cigarette was able to aerosolize that compound. We discovered that this was very complicated.

If there is a natural product or herbal remedy that is suspected of prompting a reaction, or even an overdose, a forensic toxicology lab must be able to investigate that herbal product. This requires the rapid adoption of efficient extraction processes.

The literature has an array of extraction procedures for natural products that are long and/or complicated. We are about to publish a manuscript that defines a very fast, very efficient extraction product analyzed by time-of-flight mass spectrometry.

Good research has been conducted for decades on aerosol and aerosol technology, so the electronic cigarette itself is not necessarily new. The condensation aerosol is definitely not new, so the question is, how to leverage the technology and use that condensation aerosol to deliver a pharmaceutical product.


Analytical Advancements in Forensic Toxicology


Michelle Peace Interview from AZoNetwork on Vimeo.

Why are ‘natural products’ like leaves, flowers, roots, bark, and seeds used to promote health, and how has this strategy been used in relation to e-cigarettes?

Natural products have been used for millennia for therapies, whether it is to facilitate wound healing, to help with asthma, or to reduce headaches, among other medical maladies.

Today, it seems like the word ‘natural’ is used for many different things. When people think about a natural product, they generally believe that, because it is natural, it cannot be harmful.

As a professor, I like to remind people that in the 16th century, there was a physician, scientist, and philosopher by the name of Paracelsus who said, "All things are poison, and it is solely the dose that determines whether or not that substance is poisonous."

If someone takes too much of that natural product, they may have some kind of unanticipated or unwanted reaction.

One of the concerns with regards to electronic cigarettes using natural products (for example, leaves, roots, bark, and seeds) is that extracting the pharmacologically active ingredient out of a plant material results in it becoming highly concentrated. This high concentration can result in a toxic experience or an overdose.

We are very concerned about people using natural products in e-cigarettes, and we advise them to be well informed with regards to what it is that they are vaping. Vaping should always be done with a modicum of caution.

E-cigarettes and vaping have become more popular and widely used in the recreational sphere. How has this product affected cigarette and seized drug markets?

Sales of the traditional cigarette are down for multiple reasons, including educational campaigns demonstrating their detrimental effect on health. The worldwide success of the e-cigarette has certainly contributed to this.

I have some concerns about people choosing to adopt the electronic cigarette in order to get away from the traditional cigarette because, while the electronic cigarette is widely considered to be less harmful than smoking, we do not know that definit.

I think that e-cigarettes are still harmful due to chemicals in the e-liquids that cause damage to lung tissue. Consumers should be able to make informed decisions about what they are consuming in the electronic cigarette, and I do not think that is currently the case.

It is erroneous to hear that the e-cigarette is safer than the traditional cigarette, then assume that it is therefore completely safe. We have to do a lot of work in terms of educating consumers about the dangerous chemicals in the e-liquid and the harm they can cause to lung tissue.

Regarding the impact of e-cigarettes in seized drug markets, there is a definite rise in the electronic cigarette, in all of its different forms, being collected as drug paraphernalia.

We know that this is happening worldwide and that our crime labs in the United States are seeing an increasing number of electronic cigarettes in their controlled substances sections.

We frequently receive questions about opening the devices. The devices themselves and the technology evolves quickly, so it has been especially challenging to keep crime labs informed on how to open the devices. We have published a number of manuscripts outlining good ways to analyze those e-liquids, as well.

Image Credit: Diego Cervo /

What are some of the common health concerns that arise over e-cigarettes and the materials used within them?

E-liquid manufacturers have been able to use the term ‘G.R.A.S.,’ (Generally Regarded As Safe) which the FDA uses for chemicals that can be in food products that are eaten. However, these are generally regarded as safe to eat, not to inhale.

E-liquids have become increasingly complex and over five years of research, my lab has compiled a list of all of the chemicals that we have found in e-liquids. Some include flavoring chemicals or preservatives and some have had as much as 30% ethanol in them.

According to safety data sheets and Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) guidance, these chemicals are known lung irritants or toxicants and will damage the lung tissue.

There are two different mechanisms discussed in the literature as to how this damage and the gross manifestation of the injury occurs. One is that when somebody inhales one of these chemicals, the damage to the alveoli and that tissue interface with the capillary bed becomes so inflamed that there is an immediate reaction.

The other mechanism is that inhaling these known irritants and toxicants creates a baseline irritation in the lung tissue. If a consumer changes a product and inhales a different kind of chemical, this new chemical might be the one to create gross damage.

Consumers need to appreciate that they might have symptomology that they may not necessarily attribute to vaping.

Clinical complaints from significant irritation to the eyes to the drying out of nasal cavities or a persistent cough, or even hyper-production of mucus, could be related to these chemicals in e-liquids.

If a patient is experiencing some symptomology they need to be upfront with physicians and physicians certainly need to ask if the patient vapes. Historically, this has not been asked in doctor's offices, so there could potentially be a larger attribution of certain symptoms to vaping than we realize.

Forensic toxicology laboratories employ advanced methodologies like electron microscopy and mass spectrometry. How are you using these technologies to fulfill your research aims?

My research lab has an LC Triple MS that was lent to us by Shimadzu. That instrument is critical; I have a direct analysis in real-time, time-of-flight mass spectrometer that we use as a screening tool to evaluate the chemicals that could potentially be in substances received in the lab or what their pharmacologically active ingredient is.

I have got a workhorse GCMS that I use both for screening and identification purposes and a Headspace GC with dual FID that is critical for the research that I am doing currently.

I am also testing driving a new instrument from Thermo Scientific that is a Headspace GC MS with an FID.

A forensic toxicology lab is not a one-trick pony. You need multiple instruments in order to evaluate different substances or different biological tissue, and you have to use each instrument differently depending on the substance in question.

One of the fascinating things to me about forensic toxicology is that you just cannot use one instrument; you need a suite of instruments to be able to answer your questions.  Your problem-solving skills are always in gear to assess the best protocol for an analysis.

What are some future steps you will be taking with your research into seized drugs?

I am very excited about my current research project, which is funded by the National Institute of Justice. One of the questions that came up when we discovered that some e-liquids have a lot of ethanol in them was around the impact of that ethanol on somebody vaping it.

Our experience with ethanol is that when you drink it, it reaches your gut, it goes through the first-pass metabolism, and enters your bloodstream, reaching the brain and creating an impairment that we have very well characterized.

The correlation between blood alcohol concentrations and that impairment is very well described in the literature. What is not described well is what happens when you inhale ethanol.

I work with some law enforcement agencies and train in police academies, so my first set of questions regarding vaping ethanol was around the standardized field sobriety test and impact on the preliminary breath test and the evidentiary breath test.

I used my relationship with the police department to explore collaborations with them, allowing us to investigate whether or not somebody vaping ethanol would be detected via a standardized field sobriety test and whether this would impact the protocol that the police use for the preliminary breath test and the evidentiary breath test.

That is our first series of experiments. For the second series of experiments, we are having people vape ethanol before we collect tissue, urine, blood, and oral fluid. We'll also correlate those analyses to the breath test. With this experiment, we are looking to determine whether vaping ethanol results in enough of its metabolites showing up in tissues to impact a drug test.

There are some agencies and a lot of situations in which you have to test negative for ethanol, from pilots to probation and parole.

If somebody is a regular vaper and they do not know that their e-liquid has ethanol in it because it is not disclosed as an ingredient on the bottle, and they then fail a drug test because they are positive for the metabolites of ethanol, it would pose a serious problem.

We are also evaluating how ethanol changes the particle size and the droplets of the aerosol condensation, so there is a lot going on in my research lab. I have a fairly large research team, and I collaborate with VCU's Department of Psychology because they have the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products that is funded by the NIH.

This collaboration means that we can use their clinic and benefit from their expertise in doing these kinds of studies.

Image Credit: Stephen Barnes /

What do you envision forensic examination will uncover in the coming years?

One thing that I think is particularly exciting about the world of forensic science is that it uses advancements in science from other sectors. Exploring the future of forensic science prompts us to look at what is happening in adjacent fields of science.

For example, the implications of artificial intelligence and digital evidence are significant when we consider the ability to alter video, alter audio and hide data, and the use of machine learning to make certain decisions.

Scientists can determine the geographic origin of cocaine or olive oil that can lead investigators to the bad actors. The evaluation of unique isotopes and chemical profiles to determine the physical origin of things like soil, drugs, wine, and guitars will tell us more about the products we use than we may want to know.

In terms of the biological sciences, we are used to DNA fingerprinting or DNA profiles that we attribute to identification; but there are other things happening in the biological sciences that are leveraging physics and microscopy, such as the development of optical tweezers.

Genetic platforms that evaluate the full DNA sequence for identification enable us to evaluate microbes and ancestry, as well as get inferences to physical characteristics that someone could have.

I also think that forensic science will benefit from miniaturization. There is a lot of really good research devoted to the concept of a ‘lab on a chip,’ and we are constantly working on becoming more efficient both in terms of process and cost.

Why did you choose to present your findings at Pittcon this year?

I have the great fortune of being funded by the National Institute of Justice and they have a symposium at Pittcon. I am really thankful for being able to present in that forum.

Forensic science needs to draw on what is happening in other industries and scientific sectors, take those technologies and apply them to forensic science questions. When I attend other people's talks at Pittcon I think about how I can use their work to answer questions in forensic science.

Are you looking forward to virtual Pittcon? What new trends do you think it will bring?

One of the benefits of Pittcon and so many other events being virtual is that most people have developed skills in different technologies. We are leveraging these virtual platforms for other applications and purposes, particularly now that their security has been improved.

For example, I could be hired to testify in court hundreds or thousands of miles away, and, instead of traveling to that site, I could attend virtually. This is now viable because a secure platform is available and we have become comfortable with this way of communicating.

In terms of Pittcon and other conferences being virtual this year, one of the things that I have certainly appreciated about the virtual experience has been that you get a lot of great questions. People that would otherwise not ask a question from the audience in a live forum have seemed to feel more confident in the virtual environment.

Things look a little different in 2020 this year. Why are events like Pittcon important for the science community to come together, now more than ever?

It is important for Pittcon and all conferences to keep moving forward so that we can aspire to some mode of normalcy. Just saying, "Well, things are hard right now, so let's take a pause," does not demonstrate a brave, courageous or forward-thinking solution to where we are.

Even though my research team has not been in a lab as much as usual and have only been able to meet virtually, we are still making advances. That kind of effort has helped us develop new skills; not just practical skills and physical advancements, but also in terms of our ability to deal with adversity.

When Pittcon and other associations find these solutions we are able to recognize that we are all in it together. We can approach this with the spirit of flexibility and we remember that we are going to come through the other side of it. That says something about us, and it demonstrates something to those in science who consider us role models.

Coming together, debating our work and having conversations about science, even virtually, is how science advances, and that is how we advance as humans.

As much as I do not like the virtual experience and talking through the screen, I have also learned a great deal of compassion that I do not know that I would have necessarily always turned towards if I were in a face-to-face setting. I am thankful that the folks running these associations have said, "We are going to do this. We are going to continue to be leaders, and we are going to lead through the adversity."

About Michelle Peace

Dr. Peace received her B.A. in Chemistry from Wittenberg University, a Master of Forensic Science from George Washington University, and her Ph.D. from the Medical College of Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).  The focus of her doctoral work was to study entomological evidence as an alternative matrix for toxicological analyses.    

Dr. Peace is currently an Associate Professor for the Department of Forensic Science at VCU (FEPAC-accredited).  She is one of the founding faculty for the Department and has served as Associate Chair and Chair for more 10 years.

Dr. Peace has served as a manager in a private SAMHSA-accredited forensic drug testing laboratory and has worked as a scientist for Procter & Gamble, where she holds 3 patents.

Dr. Peace is currently the PI for an NIJ grant studying the efficacy of electronic cigarettes, particularly as they pertain to substance use.  Her current project is a clinical study to evaluate the impact of vaping on roadside impairment evaluations for suspected DUI.

Michelle is a Past President of the Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SOFT) and is a member of the International Association of Forensic Toxicologists, and the Toxicology Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

She is a member of the National Safety Council’s Alcohol, Drugs, and Impaired Driving Division and has served on the Scientific Working Group for Forensic Toxicology (SWGTOX) for 4 years to help develop standards in the practice of forensic toxicology.

About Pittcon

Pittcon® is a registered trademark of The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, a Pennsylvania non-profit organization. Co-sponsored by the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh, Pittcon is the premier annual conference and exposition on laboratory science.

Proceeds from Pittcon fund science education and outreach at all levels, kindergarten through adult. Pittcon donates more than a million dollars a year to provide financial and administrative support for various science outreach activities including science equipment grants, research grants, scholarships and internships for students, awards to teachers and professors, and grants to public science centers, libraries and museums.

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