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4 things every cop should know about narcotic field test kits

The differences between vial- and paper-based narcotic field test kits are significant

Sponsored by S2 Threat Detection Technologies

By Police1 BrandFocus Staff

Every officer is familiar with narcotics field test kits. In a recent Police1 survey, over 90 percent of respondents said they use field test kits in the course of their duties. Most, around 90 percent, use vial-based test kits. However, paper-based kits are becoming a popular alternative. There are many differences between the two types of field kits, from officer safety to shelf life.

Field test kits can be used to test a variety of narcotics
Field test kits can be used to test a variety of narcotics (Image/iStock)


The biggest difference between vial-based and paper-based field test kits is in their construction. Vial-based kits use multiple vials of liquid reagents to test suspected chemicals. The vials must be carefully opened and some of the substance you want to test is put into the vial.

Paper-based tests have a dry construction and do not contain liquid reagents. A swab is provided, which is rubbed on the substance to be tested, and then rubbed on one or more test strips that have been pretreated with the dry color change reagents.

In the Police1 survey, 35 percent of respondents had injured themselves using a vial-based test kit. The majority likely came from cuts on the sharp glass or plastic of the vial, but the chemicals in the test kits themselves can also be dangerous.

While similar chemicals are used in both types of test kits, paper based tests are solid state, which means they require less chemicals to manufacture, reducing the threat of exposure to those chemicals.

Shelf life

Another consideration is shelf life. Vial-based test kits typically have a shelf life of around 12 months. Paper-based kits have a shelf life double that, according to Christian Loane, co-director at S2 Threat Detection Technologies.

More importantly, temperature affects these two types of test kits differently. Generally, the warmer the temperature the quicker the reaction goes, but warmer isn’t always better.

Vial-based test kits must be kept in and operate in specific temperature ranges. In high heat, the chemicals can become volatile, while in lower temperatures they can freeze.

Paper-based kits on the other hand, such as the S2 kit, are able to operate in any weather conditions.

Ease of use

One of the biggest concerns for the everyday officer using the kit is how easy it is to use. Both types are operated in a similar way: An individual package is opened, a test of some kind is pulled out, a substance is added to it, and then the results are recorded before the test is disposed of.

Paper-based kits are easier to use because the officer in the field doesn’t have to juggle a vial, find an object to scoop the substance into the vial (usually the test kit wrapper or a penknife) and then safely dispose of the glass or plastic vial.

Paper-based kits are also easier to carry. They are small and flexible and can fit in a back or front pocket and be carried around all shift by an officer. Vial-based kits are bulkier and unlikely to be carried on one’s person.


The average cost of a single vial-based kit is around $3, whereas paper kits can cost about half that. This is due to two factors – the amount of chemical used per kit and the cost of the other materials. Paper-based kits are typically 98 percent paper with the remaining 2 percent being the chemical agent. Vial-based kits are around 98 percent agent with the vial that holds the chemicals as the other 2 percent.

When choosing the right field test kit, it’s important to weigh all the factors involved, from safety to cost. This will help you maximize your investment while improving the efficiency of officers using these kits in the field.


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