The device, called Heartsbreath, was developed by Michael Phillips and colleagues at Menssana Research in Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was originally intended for medical diagnosis, using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to analyse volatile organic markers in the breath, and has already been used to detect early-stage lung cancer. Last year it was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for detecting heart transplant rejection.
Because chemicals from explosives can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and stored in body tissue, Phillips wondered whether the technology could help either convict or acquit terror suspects.
He tested people who handled explosives as part of their daily work and found that they exhaled a range of plasticisers and other volatile compounds that were not exhaled by people who hadn't been in contact with explosives. He also breathalysed people before and after giving them samples of explosives to handle, including TNT, dynamite and C-4.
"It was like someone taking and excreting drugs - there was a large and rapid peak in these chemical signatures in the breath," Phillips says. While the "breath fingerprints" differed between explosive groups, "there were intriguing commonalities between them", he says.
Phillips admits that there is a long way to go before the breathalyser is used as an explosives detector, but believes that such a device could one day give counter-terrorism investigators a result within minutes.
"The benefit of this technique is that it is so sensitive," says Claire Vallance, a physical chemist from the University of Oxford who also works on breath analysis. She says breath tests are already showing their potential as early, non-invasive detectors of disease, but their sensitivity means that there are likely to be other applications.
Phillips also hopes to test whether the breathalyser could be used to detect exposure to radiation by measuring alkanes and alkane-derivatives in the breath. These are markers of oxidative stress caused by radiation.
Author: Linda Geddes
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THIS ARTICLE APPEARS IN NEW SCIENTIST MAGAZINE ISSUE: 29 OCTOBER 2005