Technology

Students Develop Nail Polish That Can Detect Date Rape Drugs

August 25, 2014 | by Stephen Luntz

Photo credit: Neil Milne BuzzBuzzNailArt. In future a change in nail polish color could be its own warning

Four undergraduate students at North Carolina State University are attempting to produce a nail polish that will reveal the presence of “date rape drugs” such as Rohypnol and GHB by changing color in their presence.

“With our nail polish, any woman will be empowered to discreetly ensure her safety by simply stirring her drink with her finger,” the Undercover Colors Facebook page says.

“Through this nail polish and similar technologies, we hope to make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman’s drink because there’s now a risk that they can get caught,” the page continues. “In effect, we want to shift the fear from the victims to the perpetrators. We are Undercover Colors and we are the first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault.”

Drinksafe technologies have distributed tens of millions of coasters that change color if a drop of a drink containing commonly used drugs fall on them. Nail polish might be technically more challenging to work with than cardboard, but has the advantage of being more discrete for those who don’t want to make it obvious they are considering the possibility their drink might be spiked.

So far however, Undercover Colors aren’t revealing much detail. The project, which came out of a University initiative to get students to tackle real-world problems, appears to be well short of bringing a product to market. Their website appears to be nothing other than a logo and a request to donate to their research. All four of the founders are studying Materials Science and Engineering. Spokesperson Ankesh Madan said, “All of us have been close to someone who has been through the terrible experience, and we began to focus on finding a way to help prevent the crime.”

A study of the effectiveness of the coasters pointed to the problem that many people are under the impression that they reveal flunitrazepam (Rohypnol), but in fact only claim to detect GHB or Ketamine. An inaccurate belief in effectiveness against Rohypnol may deter some would-be rapists, but the study's authors warn against a “false sense of security” in users. Similar problems arise from the fact that acidic beverages and milk products interfere with reliability. The study also found that, while testing for Ketamine was effective, the coasters took much longer to change color than users might have expected.

Many people are clearly excited by the nail polish idea, with comments such as, “I cannot wait until this is available, I will gladly buy CASES to give out to my students,” and “Not just important and lifesaving, but also secret spy weapon level cool!” posted on Facebook. However, Karen Pickering, co-founder of Melbourne Slutwalk, a march against rape and victim blaming, argues, “No amount of preparation or technology will protect us from the fact that the overwhelming majority of sexual assault is committed by men known and trusted by victims.”