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  • CT spells busted

Jan 2011
Lynn Savage,

So, you’ve decided to give up your career for the exciting life of a drug mule, someone who smuggles illicit goods by stuffing himself with packets of pure cocaine or other drugs to get them from supplier to customer. Or maybe you’d rather be on the right side of the law, helping pick out the mules from the other travelers at the airport or border crossing. Seems safer and less stressful than worrying about accidental spillage, anyway.

This 3-D reconstruction shows someone who has swallowed several packages of drugs, which are now mainly located in the person’s bowel just above the rectum. Photos courtesy of the Radiological Society of North America Inc.

If you chose the latter path, your job just got a little easier because a recent study has shown that one detection protocol in particular – computed tomography (CT) – is better at finding packets of cocaine hidden in assorted body cavities.

Hidden drugs are stashed in various types of packaging, such as sealed condoms, and either swallowed whole, kept under the tongue, or stuffed into the rectum or vagina. The packages themselves can range from the size of a pea to that of a banana. Law enforcement typically turns to one of three imaging techniques to search for packets of cocaine in suspected smugglers: digital x-ray, linear slit digital radiography, or computed tomography. However, until Patricia Flach and her colleagues compared results among the three methods, it wasn’t known which was best.

Flach, who works at the University Hospital of Bern and the Institute of Forensic Medicine of Bern in Switzerland, and her team analyzed images from 89 radiological exams of 50 suspected drug mules, 43 of whom were eventually confirmed as smugglers.

A 3-D view from the chin, up toward the forehead, indicates the incidental finding of three cocaine pellets that were being kept under the subject’s tongue. The subject was immediately placed under arrest.

Of the three techniques, only CT had 100 percent sensitivity, enabling examiners to find all packages of cocaine hidden inside stomachs, intestines and other body cavities, no matter where they were hidden or how small they were. Linear slit digital radiography had 85 percent sensitivity and digital x-rays only 70 percent.

So, if you really want to consider that new career as a smuggler, you now face the risk of being subjected to large doses of ionizing radiation as well as the possibility of potent drugs seeping into your bloodstream and the likelihood of doing jail time for your efforts.

The emission and/or propagation of energy through space or through a medium in the form of either waves or corpuscular emission.
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