Researchers from France’s Université Grenoble Alpes have devised a new method for collecting drug use data from the surface of smartphones.

The approach was developed to help clinicians better understand what drugs people are taking and when, as well as when they use them and in what contexts so as to improve the treatment of patients suspected of overdosing.

The researchers proposed that smartphones surfaces featuring a user’s fingerprints, which contain sweat and sebum that might reveal the presence of drugs, could offer an approach for tracking drug use.

To determine if this approach is effective, drug users at music events in France were invited to anonymously complete a survey about their drug use. The researchers then dry swabbed the surface of the attendees’ smartphones and those swabs were subsequently analyzed using liquid chromatography to detect the presence of drugs.

After collecting and analyzing 122 swabs, the team was able to identify an assortment of drugs — including MDMA, cocaine, THC, ketamine, LSD, methamphetamine, CBD, heroin and mescaline. This reportedly confirmed that the smartphones can offer a non-invasive approach for assessing drug use.

However, the researchers caution that the approach has some limitations — namely that the stability of drug molecules on a smartphone surface is unknown, which could potentially influence the results in the event that substances degrade quickly or slowly. Further, the approach does not take into consideration that many people might have handled the smartphone. As such, the researchers will work to address those limitations going forward.

An article detailing the approach, “Smartphone swabs as an emerging tool for toxicology testing: a proof-of-concept study in a nightclub,” appears in the journal Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine.

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