IRMS to study a common cocaine cutting agent: phenacetin

Drug Test Anal. 2017 Mar;9(3):479-484. doi: 10.1002/dta.2137. Epub 2017 Jan 27.


Phenacetin is a pharmaceutical closely related to acetaminophen that has been banned in France for a long time due to its nephritic and carcinogenic adverse effects. It frequently appears in cocaine seizures as a cutting agent. Following both sanitary and intelligence motivations, this molecule was chosen for this study, and stable isotopes seemed to be the most appropriate tool. A total of 228 seized samples were collected over a 6-year period, and 8 standards of known origin were purchased. They were submitted to gas chromatography (GC) or elemental analysis - isotope ratio mass spectrometry (EA-IRMS) measurements, depending on their complexity. Stable isotope ratios of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen for a part of the sample set, were acquired. The isotopic values of phenacetin standards acquired from various providers located worldwide are quite spread, which indicates that stable isotopes could be used to discriminate manufacturers. However, the measured values of most of the seized samples are concentrated in a narrow range, tending to demonstrate that phenacetin is smuggled from a single source or similar ones. Consequently, stable isotopes could only be used to exclude that several samples come from a common source. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Keywords: 13C; 15N; 2H; phenacetin; stable isotopes.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / analysis
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / chemistry*
  • Carbon Isotopes / analysis
  • Chromatography, Gas / methods
  • Cocaine / chemistry*
  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors / chemistry*
  • Illicit Drugs / chemistry*
  • Mass Spectrometry / methods
  • Phenacetin / analysis
  • Phenacetin / chemistry*


  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic
  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors
  • Illicit Drugs
  • Phenacetin
  • Cocaine