K.O. Drops: The gloss is already peeling away

6. October 2014

A nail polish which is said to detect knock-out drops in party drinks has triggered some real press hype in recent days. What goes on in the supposedly miraculous nail polish? Will it actually be able to protect women from sexual predation?

In the USA, one in four women will become victims of sexual abuse during their lifetime – this was reported by four Americans who studied materials science and materials engineering at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The common interest in entrepreneurship and the search for a solution to a universal problem led the four former students to work on a knockout-drop detecting nail polish. Under the project title “Undercover Colours” the nail polish has, especially in social media, already been hailed as an innovative invention, the use of which enables a global problem to be able to be solved. But can the nail polish actually do that?

Stir once inconspicuously

The principle is simple: before going to a party or bar, the woman applies the nail polish, which makes a colour change while detecting the substances Rohypnol, Xanax or GHB. These substances, labelled in English as “date-rape drugs”, put their victim out of action. Anyone planning a rape and/or robbery finds the game easy with such a stunned victim. In order to prevent such attacks, it should supposedly suffice in the future to stick a painted fingernail for a moment into a glass of drink. If the nail polish changes colour, the beverage contains at least one of these substances.

The competition is not sleeping

The idea of detecting knockout-drops in drinks is not new. The company DrinkSavvy announced last year development of straws and glasses which also change colour when coming into contact with knockout-drops. Just as with “Undercover Colours”, the principle behind it has remained a trade secret. The mini-chip stick “pd.id” as well is supposed to make women safer by displaying the presence of various stunning and torpor inducing drugs in beverages. Currently its inventor is gathering campaign sponsors in a crowd-funding campaign.

Excessive media hype?

While the press and social media have already heavily debated whether such a nail coating carries too much responsibility in the protection of (potential) rape victims, the matter that this nail lacquer does not yet exist – and perhaps never will – has ended up completely being left out of the focus. As things stand thus far, the four inventors have not yet shown publicly that their coatings work. Also, with regard to the mechanism of action, so far no information has arrived. The internet presence of the young entrepreneurs has so far only consisted of a home page with links to Facebook and Twitter and a support button, through which visitors can support the project financially. “Undercover Colours” seems nonetheless to somehow convince, because the company has already won several business founder awards and thus taken in more than $ 100,000.

On Facebook as well there are many followers of the clever nail polish-to-be. The “Undercover Colours” page already has more than 117,000 fans (on 15.09.2014). There the inventors gather sponsors for their project, including through posts such as: “We still need $ 5,000 to hire an additional chemist and to double our research and development. That means half of the development time for our first product! Will you support us?” Yet gradually the press storm has seemed to unsettle the four inventors. On August 27, they clearly put on Facebook: “Our product is not yet available for purchase. We are still at an early development phase …” “Proof-of Concept” research has, however, been very promising according to the inventors.

Possible agents: Only three of 100

Dr. rer. nat. Hilke Andresen-Streichert from the Institute of Legal Medicine of the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf (Germany) is sceptical of the invention: “Such a nail polish possibly could deter potential offenders from manipulating a drink with one of the three testable substances, for all three substances indeed play a role in knockout-drops, but not only these”. When it would however be known which substances can be detected, it takes no special creativity to switch to alternative substances with equivalent effect, explains the toxicologist. “Any substance that acts in a centrally attenuating manner is suitable in principle for such predatory use”, says Dr. Andresen-Streichert. And there are heaps of them. In the laboratories of the UKE more than 100 such agents have been accounted for. “Many substances also have effects without alcohol, but are no longer controllable in combination with alcohol”, says the director of the toxicology laboratory.

Reliable detection technically very difficult

When considering a potential detection principle, an antibody test would be feasible. “For Rohypnol and Xanax such a test could work in principle. The molecule GHB is too small for a specific antibody detection”, says Dr. Andresen-Streichert. Tests until present have been based on enzymatic reactions which with high probability no longer work reliably in the presence of fluctuating pH values and concentrations of alcohol as are present in party drinks. “They could leave women with a false sense of security”, suspects Andresen-Streichert. The toxicologist often analyses which substances have been used to make women involuntarily unresistant. Her experience has shown: “Alcoholic drinks are the best knockout-drops. Young girls in particular who are not yet able to estimate how much alcohol they can tolerate are particularly vulnerable”. This problem could comparatively easily be solved by moderated drinking behaviour, not so easily with a nail polish though.

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