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Couple detained at Punta Cana airport claim household product was mistaken for cocaine

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A Waterloo couple is grateful to be back home after they say they were detained for several hours at a Punta Cana airport, accused of carrying drugs.

Jamie and Dan Yanke travel to Dominican Republic often and said they never had a problem until earlier this month – changing the way they will travel forever.

The couple said their luggage was flagged at the airport before they boarded their flight back to Waterloo.

Jamie said she and several other passengers were taken in for questioning. She said that is where she learned their luggage was being inspected for an illegal substance.

“When we walked into the room there was a white substance on the table,” said Jamie. “They explained that they will be testing the product for cocaine on a cocaine test wipe.”

Henrik Andersen tells CTV News his family were four of 12 passengers taken into questioning.

“It was actually my daughter, my 8 year old whose suitcase it was, so they asked for her.”

Andersen said the instant security tested the substance, the wipe turned blue, indicating it was positive for cocaine.

“[My daughter] was freaked out, she was grabbing me tightly. [It was] a little traumatizing.”

Travellers blames household product

The passengers involved had packed a bag of DampRid, a moisture absorber, which can appear to look similar to cocaine.

The cocaine test wipes turn blue on contact to indicate a positive result.

“I remember turning to Dan and saying ‘am I going to a Dominican jail tonight?” said Jamie.

DampRid seen in their Waterloo home. (CTV News/Tyler Kelaher)

Former police officer reacts

Scott Blandford, a public safety professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and former police officer said there’s been a huge drug problem moving through several Caribbean countries including in the Dominican Republic.

“You are not in Canada anymore. You’re going to be liable and susceptible to their laws,” said Blandford.

False positive

After being released, the couple said they paid around $1,000 out of pocket to get home the next day.

Now the couple wonders how a household product could be mistaken for illegal drugs.

“They were going to detain us based on a wet wipe,” said Dan.

The couple said they purchased the same test kits police used and claim the DampRid caused a false positive when they tried it at home.

Last month the University Of Pennsylvania released a study showing that presumptive field drug test kits are known to produce false positive errors and were never designed or intended to provide conclusive evidence.

A photo of the cocaine detection wipe at their Waterloo home. (CTV News/Tyler Kelaher)

Why the cocaine test turns blue

At the University of Waterloo, chemistry professors Michael Chong and Graham Murphy discovered the pink cocaine test wipes contain cobalt thiocyanate, which turns blue when it comes in contact with cocaine.

Murphy says the test strips are packaged damp and will also turn blue when the moisture inside dries up.

“When cobalt is wet it is pink in colour,” Murphy said. “[DampRid] is a dehydrating agent. It will suck moisture out of the environment or a localized environment [such as] a test strip.”

Murphy adds once the Damprid touches the wipes it will instantly turn blue, indicating a false-positive for cocaine.

"As we saw in this case, an innocent household product led to a false positive cocaine test, and resulted in financial harm and emotional distress," said Murphy. "If our deductions about their underlying chemistry prove correct, these tests strips may have a design flaw that warrants immediate attention."

 

The Yankes said the experience has changed the way they'll prepare for airport security in the future.

Next time they go on vacation, any questionable product will stay at home.

Andersen says he hopes the Dominican government takes some responsibility for the incident.

“It was my 8-year-old daughter who was there. My 10-year-old was seeing me basically pulled into another room not understanding why we were being pulled over. It’s scary for them,” Andersen said.

CTV News reached out to the Dominican Republic’s National Drug Control Direction, but did not hear back.

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