On the cards: Test kit for date rape drug

On the cards: Test kit for date rape drug
LIFESAVER: Professor Chang, flanked by teammates (left) Xu Wang and Zhai Duanting, showing a fluorescent sensor for date rape drug GHB.

SINGAPORE - It was meant to be a fun night out for 26-year-old Edward (not his real name), when he went to Marina Bay Sands superclub Avalon with two friends in January last year.

They were even treated generously to an alcoholic drink, courtesy of a separate group of men from across the bar.

But things took an unexpected turn when Edward finished the glass, and appeared to be extremely intoxicated in just minutes.

"My friends found me completely unresponsive, and it was really unusual behaviour because I have no memory from that night at all, right after cleaning out the bottom of that particular drink," he said, adding that a friend who shared the drink with him reacted in the same way.

The third friend, who did not touch the drink, sent them home in a cab immediately.

After some research, Edward suspected that his drink had been laced with gamma hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), a central nervous system depressant better known as a "date rape" drug.

The odourless, colourless and slightly salty drug - almost undetectable when mixed into a drink - is commonly used to render victims physically incapacitated and vulnerable to sexual assault.

But a new detection kit for the drug may be available in a year, thanks to the discovery of a fluorescent GHB-detecting sensor, called GHB Orange, by a research team from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

"Our hope is to produce a simple device that can be used easily in real life, to detect whether there is an illegal drug in your drink," said NUS Faculty of Science's Professor Chang Young Tae, who led the team.

The kit, he added, can help prevent drug-facilitated sexual assaults.

The liquid sensor changes colour within 30 seconds when it detects the presence of GHB under a typical club's ultraviolet lighting. When mixed in a beverage that contains enough GHB to affect one's consciousness - typically about 1g in 100ml - the sensor's fluorescent orange colour will fade visibly.

At a media briefing yesterday, Prof Chang said the team plans to work with industry partners on a portable test kit for consumers in a year's time. This could take the form of a stirrer or a smartphone-aligned device.

He aims to price it at $1 for 10 tests.

In Singapore, GHB is a Class A controlled drug and is banned. Only between 2g and 4g is enough to interfere with one's motor and speech control. It may even induce a coma-like sleep and can react dangerously with alcohol.

In 2010, a 20-year-old American exchange student, Mr Scott Jared Monat, collapsed and died here of heart failure after an adverse reaction to alcohol and five kinds of drugs, including GHB.

While national statistics on date rape are not readily available, women's rights organisation Aware received about 49 calls regarding acquaintance rape last year, and 36 such calls in 2012.

Still, executive director Corinna Lim told MyPaper: "Many women choose not to report cases of date or acquaintance rape, for reasons such as the fear of not being believed or being blamed for the rape."

For Edward, a GHB-detector spells positive news, and more assurance for many out there.

"It's so easy for someone to slip a drug in your drink without arousing your suspicions, this is what makes it so dangerous for anyone - you can even lose your life."

tsjwoo@sph.com.sg


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