A Silver Spring-based product safety company is testing drug identification technology at RiverRx Pharmacy in Bethesda that will prevent the distribution of counterfeit drugs and reduce medication errors.

“Most of these forgeries are going to be in third-world countries,” said Narender Dhallan, pharmacist at RiverRx. “But some of them probably do leak into our country. If there were a simple means to fix it, I wouldn’t mind to do so.”

A spectrometer uses light to show the chemical substance of a drug, allowing testers to determine if a drug is real or a counterfeit. The company, InfraTrac, is creating reference libraries for drug identification.

Spectrometers are about 50 years old, said Sharon Flank, chief executive of InfraTrac, but their size and price made them less accessible to pharmacies. Now, they are smaller, lighter, cheaper and easier to use.

The newer machines range in size comparable to a double-loaf breadmaker to a hair dryer to a bar code reader, Flank said.

InfraTrac is testing spectrometers that cost $20,000, but the cost will probably drop to about $500, Flank said.

Filling a prescription requires help from a pharmaceutical technician and a pharmacist. The technician retrieves a bottle off the shelf, fills the vial and puts the bottle, vial and prescription in a basket. Then the pharmacist checks the prescription to ensure it’s the correct medication and dose.

“Anything bad that’s going to happen needs to be checked as close as possible to the person who is going to take the drug,” Flank said.

That’s why InfraTrac employees have been using tweezers to pull out a sample of medication and test it in the spectrometer during the few minutes a basket sits on its journey from technician to pharmacist.

“The idea is that the technician who fills it can run that level of checks themselves so that there’s a chemical check as well as a supervisory check,” Flank said.

The Maryland Board of Pharmacy processed 203 complaints from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010, according to data from the pharmacy compliance unit. Of those complaints, 34 percent were related to dispensing errors. The compliance unit ensures pharmacies and pharmacists follow state laws and regulations.

The Board of Pharmacy is a complaint-driven regulatory agency and does not calculate the number and types of dispensing errors, standard-of-care problems and other instances in Maryland pharmacies.

The board received 236 complaints from July 1, 2010, through April, according to board data. Of those, 93 were related to standard of care, or guidelines, which encompass the majority, though not all, of dispensing errors.

With the press of one button, the spectrometer will indicate the top match for the medication at a 99 percent probability, Flank said.

Fake drugs are not a huge problem in the United States, Dhallan said. But forgeries are out there.

“I don’t want people to fear there are a lot of fake drugs,” he said. “But you want to stop it before it becomes a problem.”

The InfraTrac spectrometer will probably make its debut in hospital pharmacies within one year, Flank said.

“We expect that the first use will be in hospitals where we can check not only things that get dispensed out of bottles, but also things that are compounded in the hospital and therefore more prone to problems,” Flank said.

Given the present cost of the technology, Dhallan said pharmacies probably cannot afford it. But he said he hopes the cost will decrease in the coming years.

“I’m excited,” he said. “I think it’s a neat technology.”