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'Safer' Drugs Found at Music Festivals Contain Meth and Bath Salts

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With the summer festival circuit in full swing, party drugs are more ubiquitous than ever. But are those little pills really what they promise to be? And do users actually care? No, and yes, according to a new research paper in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

The street drug Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) has seen a resurgence and an evolution over the last 10 years. The once-popular variety called Ecstasy has given way to Molly, which is supposedly both purer and safer than its predecessor. 

But the thing about illegal drugs is that, well, they're illegal, which means they're unregulated, which means there's no formalized quality control or consumer protection. You can't know for sure what you're getting. This could mean that the drug fails to get you high. It could also kill you. 

Looking at this problem, behavioral scientists at Johns Hopkins University had two questions: First, if party drug users had a way to check their drugs, would they do it? And second, what would they find?

To find out, the researchers teamed up with the nonprofit DanceSafe, which aims to make the electronic-music scene a safer place. Part of that work involves on-site adulterant screening, better known as pill testing. DanceSafe volunteers bring a mobile lab to a festival or other event and offer attendees cost-free, judgment-free chemical analysis of their pills and powders. 

Over a five-year period between 2010 and 2015, DanceSafe volunteers collected and tested 529 samples of drugs sold as MDMA. To test them, they scraped a tiny sliver or a few grains into a vial, and then mixed it with color-changing chemicals. The testers then compared the resulting color inside the vial with the color-test profile of 29 different substances, including MDMA, sugar, caffeine, and cocaine. 

Unsurprisingly, the results were not great. About 40 percent of the samples contained no MDMA at all and had been adulterated. The most common substitutes included methamphetamine and the compounds called "bath salts." Three samples included the amphetamine called PMA, which has been strongly linked to overdose and death. And the pills sold as Molly were no safer or purer than those sold as Ecstasy.

After sharing the results of a pill test, DanceSafe volunteers typically ask each person if they still intend to take the drugs. Only 26 percent of people with adulterated pills said they did. Interestingly, that number was only 46 percent for people whose MDMA was real—which suggests that the test itself may have caused them to reconsider.

"Our results suggest that some people will reject taking a pill to get high if it doesn't contain what they thought it did, or has harmful additives," corresponding author Matthew W. Johnson said in a statement.

Because their plans were self-reported, it's hard to know for sure what any of these people actually did next. They might have taken the drugs anyway, given them away, or sold them.

Judgment-free pill testing is not without controversy, and it's hard to design controlled experiments when illegal substances are involved. Still, the researchers say, these findings should give us pause.

"People would be safest not taking any street drugs at all," Johnson said. "But if free, no-fault testing can reduce deaths and other catastrophic consequences, it may be a service worth having."

Johnson and his colleagues urge would-be MDMA users to think hard about these findings: "People who take pills and first responders need to know that no matter how the pills are branded or what name they are sold as, they almost always contain a mix of ingredients."

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Live Smarter
Not Sure About Your Tap Water? Here's How to Test for Contaminants
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In the wake of Flint, Michigan's water crisis, you may have begun to wonder: Is my tap water safe? How would I know? To put your mind at ease—or just to satisfy your scientific curiosity—you can find out exactly what's in your municipal water pretty easily, as Popular Science reports. Depending on where you live, it might even be free.

A new water quality test called Tap Score, launched on Kickstarter in June 2017, helps you test for the most common household water contaminants for $120 per kit. You just need to take a few samples, mail them to the lab, and you'll get the results back in 10 days, telling you about lead levels, copper and cadmium content, arsenic, and other common hazardous materials that can make their way into water via pipes or wells. If you're mostly worried about lead, you can get a $40 test that only tells you about the lead and copper content of your water.

In New York State, a free lead-testing program will send you a test kit on request that allows you to send off samples of your water to a state-certified lab for processing, no purchase required. A few weeks later, you'll get a letter with the results, telling you what kind of lead levels were found in your water. This option is great if you live in New York, but if your state doesn't offer free testing (or only offers it to specific locations, like schools), there are other budget-friendly ways to test, too.

While mailing samples of your water off to a certified lab is the most accurate way to test your water, you can do it entirely at home with inexpensive strip tests that will only set you back $10 to $15. These tests aren't as sensitive as lab versions, and they don't test for as many contaminants, but they can tell you roughly whether you should be concerned about high levels of toxic metals like lead. The strip tests will only give you positive or negative readings, though, whereas the EPA and other official agencies test for the concentration of contaminants (the parts-per-billion) to determine the safety of a water source. If you're truly concerned with what's in your water, you should probably stick to sending your samples off to a professional, since you'll get a more detailed report of the results from a lab than from a colored strip.

In the future, there will likely be an even quicker way to test for lead and other metals—one that hooks up to your smartphone. Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Colorado, won the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge by inventing Tethys, a faster lead-testing device than what's currently on the market. With Tethys, instead of waiting for a lab, you can get results instantly. It's not commercially available yet, though, so for now, we'll have to stick with mail-away options.

[h/t Popular Science]

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