Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Nail polish detects date-rape drugs? Hype is premature

There's a lot of buzz about a handy idea for detecting date-rape drugs: a chemically sensitive nail polish.

Nail polish detects date-rape drugs? Hype is premature

Undercover Colors, which is working to develop a nail polish that can detect date-rape drugs, was started by four young men who met as students at North Carolina State. They are Ankesh Madan, Stephen Gray, Tasso Von Windheim, and Tyler Confrey-Maloney.
Undercover Colors, which is working to develop a nail polish that can detect date-rape drugs, was started by four young men who met as students at North Carolina State. They are Ankesh Madan, Stephen Gray, Tasso Von Windheim, and Tyler Confrey-Maloney.

There's a lot of buzz about a handy idea for detecting date-rape drugs: a chemically sensitive nail polish.

The idea is that anyone wearing Undercover Colors, a project of four men who met as North Carolina State undergrads, could simply swirl in finger in a drink, and look for a color change. 

Many media outlets spread the word, with a fair share of stories sporting headlines that suggest the invention is reality or would be "soon."

There's plenty of social media buzz, too, with scores of laudatory comments on the group's Facebook page, such as "I cannot wait until this is available, I will gladly buy CASES to give out to my students," and "This may very well be one of the most important inventions ever."

Actually, the excitement seems premature. It's not a product yet, it's not a new idea, there would be limitations, not everyone supports such an approach, and research suggests drink-spiking isn't as common as people fear.

The development team -- Ankesh Madan, Stephen Gray, Tasso Von Windheim, and Tyler Confrey-Maloney -- has been working on the chemistry while gaining financial support. Unclear, however, is how close they are to demonstrating a proof of concept.

"We'd love to take Undercover Colors to the next level and take our product to market. Near-term, we're focusing on technical development and market testing," Madan told Higher Education Works.

A July 15 Twitter pic does show social media director Laurel Street holding up a small bottle, but a Facebook post by the group acknowledged last week, "It is not yet available as we are in the R&D stage for this product." 

"At this point, we are early in the development of our product and are not taking interviews or doing stories," was Gray's emailed response to a series of questions. 

Billionaire Mark Cuban, outspoken Shark Tank investor, called the idea "brilliant" and told the Triangle Business Journal he would consider investing if he sees "some research that proves it works." 

One North Carolina investor, though, has already come forward with $100,000. 

The idea has been around for at least a decade.

A patent for a "Personal illicit drug detection method" using either fingernail polish or a fingernail decal was applied for in 2003 and granted in 2007. Its first claim is quite general, raising infringement questions for the Undercover Colors team. 

A roofie-detecting nail polish called Dip Tip was reportedly on the verge of hitting the market earlier this year.

Other products are also in development, including a dippable device called pd.id (for Personal Drink ID), which college students can order for $59 by donating through indiegogo. An anti-spiking kit  carries the odd claim that although it can't detect all chemicals, it can help as a deterrent. DriveSavvy says it's developing color-changing cups, glasses and straws.

To be fully protective, any system would have to work on food and gum, which can also be spiked.

One feminist criticism is that the onus is placed on potential victims to change their behaviors, instead of on predators and ways the culture enables them.

“ I really wish that people were funneling all of this ingenuity and funding and interest into new ways to stop people from perpetrating violence,” said Alexandra Brodsky, a founder of Know Your IX.   

The role of drink-spiking in drug-facilitated sexual assault may be overstated, experts say.

"The number one date rape drug isn't GHB, Roofies, or Ketamine. The number one date rape drug is ALCOHOL," as one college website puts it.

"There appears to be widespread disbelief, or active denial, that excess alcohol could cause the same incoherence, physical distress and incapacity associated with ‘date rape’ drugs," according a 2009 study published in the British Journal of Criminology. "... A research-based consensus has found little evidence of drink-spiking with drugs among those who suspect that it facilitated their own sexual assault."

Predators can use alcohol by providing extra-strong drinks, encouraging more drinking 

One could, however, question the reliability of the drug testing, since anecdotes abound, like this one that alleges a bartender sold doses

"Very little science exists for their detection," according to the Undercover Colors Facebook page.

Any conclusions would also be based on incomplete data, because many rapes go unreported.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com. Follow @petemucha on Twitter.

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