The concept of a nail polish to combat drink spiking sounds laudable, but the science suggests that it's unlikely to work well.
We covered the news that a group of US Undergraduates were pushing ahead with a nail polish designed to detect date rape drugs in drinks recently.
An admirable aim albeit also an extremely sad thing to have to need in the first place. It would be much simpler to simply not spike people's drinks in the first place, wouldn't it?
There's a more fundamental issue, though, and it's one that's raised in a piece at Animal, where "Backdoor Pharmacist" points out a few key flaws in developing a nail polish to combat sexual assault.
Firstly, there's the fact that the existing kits don't reliably work.
A study of commercially available “date-rape” drug testing coasters found that they were unreliable — changing color for things like different brands of mineral water, taking an extremely long time for ketamine, and giving a false positive once milk was used. Another study of commercially available card testing kits found that in laboratory conditions, testers only correctly detected two out of three drugged samples. An interactive lesson at University at Buffalo found that the GHB test was only an acid test. Anything acidic: wines, fruit juices, would have caused it to turn positive. Compounding the issue, GHB also occurs naturally in wines.
Moreover, the tests tend to focus on just a few key drugs, but the spectrum of things that can be dissolved into liquid is alarmingly large, and the ability to create designer drugs with minor molecular changes means that there could be thousands more, meaning that the arms race for a nail polish would be one that's almost impossible to win.
Backdoor Pharmacist also points out that test kits work best in lab conditions, where you've got a well lit environment and plenty of time. Bars and nightclubs don't work like that, leading to further unreliability.
That raises the potential concern of false negatives all over the place, which is concerning, because the worst possible case scenario for this kind of product would be thinking you were safe while actually having your drink compromised.
If there is one bright point to be borne out of all of this, it's that the article points out that the credible rate of actual drink spiking is a lot lower than you might think.
One Australian study found that the percentage rate of drink spiking found less than 9 per cent of those cases claimed as even "plausible", but even within those researchers failed to find a single case "where a sedative drug was likely to have been illegally placed in a drink in a pub or nightclub." It seems more likely to have been the result of excessive alcohol consumption rather than actual drink spiking.