Fentanyl exposure: 5 safety tips for the police

Accidental officer exposure to carfentanil, an analog of fentanyl, can be lethal.

Sep 19, 2016

The United States is in a fentanyl crisis. I don’t use the word crisis lightly. Between 2013 and 2014, fentanyl submissions to the DEA lab from Ohio increased by a whopping 1,043 percent. Along with those submissions came a 526 percent increase in fentanyl related overdose deaths. This all happened while fentanyl prescriptions dropped.

There are several different types of fentanyl, with pharmaceutical fentanyl being hundreds of times more potent than heroin. Right now, carfentanil is the fentanyl du jour that is receiving a lot of press coverage, but that can easily be replaced by another type of fentanyl.

What is the driving force behind the fentanyl craze?

Referring back to an opiate comparison chart, fentanyl can be compared to taking 500 to 1,000 codeine pills – or fifteen times more potent than heroin. That sums up why it is so popular.

After his city suffered 47 overdose deaths in an 18-month period, Lt. Patrick Glynn began to think seriously about the role of cops in treating OD victims.

A recent DEA report outlines another reason why the fentanyl craze is exploding. According to the DEA:

“Traffickers usually purchase powdered fentanyls and pill presses from China to create counterfeit pills to supply illicit U.S. drug markets. Under U.S. law, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) must be notified of the importation of a pill press. However, foreign pill press vendors often mislabel the equipment or send it disassembled to avoid law enforcement detection.”

Fentanyl is now being used as a cutting agent in heroin and has even been found in large shipments of cocaine coming from Mexico. As more addicts find the power of fentanyl, they will switch to using it.

The 2006 fentanyl crisis was fueled by a single clandestine laboratory in Toluca, Mexico, and once the laboratory was seized, the seizures of fentanyl and overdose deaths in the United States suddenly tapered off. The current fentanyl crisis is fueled by China-sourced fentanyl and fentanyl precursor chemicals that are being sold to various individuals and organizations responsible for fentanyl processing and distribution operations. This includes individuals linked to Mexican cartels and other criminal organizations that are not affiliated with Mexican cartels.

This problem isn’t going away. At some point, the cartels will realize that fentanyl is easier to import and manufacture than keeping fields full of opium poppies. With its high potency, expect things to get worse, not better.

How to protect yourself from accidental exposure to fentanyl
When veterinarians handle and administer carfentanil, they usually wear safety gear that is close to a full hazmat suit. They do that because an amount of carfentanil as small as a snow flake can kill a human.

Eleven SWAT officers were recently sickened after exposure to heroin and fentanyl during a raid. A flash-bang grenade tossed into an alleged stash house kicked up powdered fentanyl and heroin that the officers inhaled.

Obviously, police officers can’t wear a full hazmat suit when they investigate every drug crime, but here are some tips to help keep yourself from becoming the next victim of an accidental fentanyl exposure.

  1. Understand that fentanyl can kill you.
    Fentanyl can be used as a cutting agent in heroin or it can be pressed into a pill that can look like any other pharmaceutical. In California, an unscrupulous drug dealer pressed fentanyl into a pill that looked like an ordinary Vicodin. So the drug you encounter today can have fentanyl in it and you would never know it.
  2. Know that fentanyl is transdermal.
    If you touch the heroin or Vicodin pill above, you can absorb the pharmaceutical through your skin. If it had carfentanil in it, it could be deadly.
  3. Wear proper protective gear.
    Never handle any drugs, even pharmaceuticals or marijuana, without latex gloves. If you are conducting a raid on a dealer of fentanyl, you should probably treat that raid as if you were hitting a drug lab. This means protective gear for everyone, including respirators.
  4. Do not field test suspected fentanyl.
    If you are handling suspected fentanyl, you should not field test the drug under any circumstances. The less exposure you have to fentanyl, the better off you are.
  5. Implement a naloxone program in your agency.
    Naloxone reverses an opiate overdose. If you or your partner are exposed to fentanyl and are experiencing overdose symptoms, the naloxone you carry with you can reverse that overdose and you can live to fight crime another day.

The fentanyl crisis is going to be with us for a long time. Do everything you can to protect yourself by following these five easy steps. You owe it to yourself, your loved ones and our communities.

About the author
Keith Graves has been a Police Officer in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1990 and is currently a sergeant assigned to patrol. Keith is a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor (IACP #3292) and teaches both the DRE course and the CNOA Drug Abuse Recognition Course. Keith has also taught at the Basic Police Academy and has developed a number of POST certified drug courses. Keith has held assignments as a Narcotics/Vice Detective, COPPS Officer, Traffic Officer, Training Sergeant, Patrol Sergeant and SWAT Team Leader.

Fentanyl’s Deadly Risk to Cops is Changing the way Narcotics Officers Operate

By Jim Salter, Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — The street version of fentanyl blamed in the deaths of thousands of Americans is also threatening police officers, forcing changes in long-standing basics of drug investigations, from confiscations to testing and undercover operations, law enforcement officials say. Overdose deaths have surged as drugs such as heroin, cocaine and counterfeit prescription pills are now commonly laced with fentanyl to increase potency, though drug investigators say it is increasingly sold by itself, too. A speck the size of a few grains of salt can potentially kill a 250-pound (113-kilogram) man, said Tommy Farmer, special agent in charge of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

This undated photo provided by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation shows fake Oxycodone pills that are actually fentanyl. (Tommy Farmer/Tennessee Bureau of Investigation via AP)

Fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled if it becomes airborne. Because such a small amount can be deadly, police agencies big and small are changing the way they go about keeping officers safe. James Shroba, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s office in St. Louis, said agents are even trained in how to give themselves the anti-overdose Narcan in case of accidental exposure to fentanyl because “if they actually touch it or inhale it, they could die.”

“This is a whole different dynamic of how we process evidence,” Shroba said. Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate, can be legally used, typically in a patch, by those in severe pain, such as end-stage cancer patients. The street version, which is mostly made in China or Mexico, comes in various forms — tablets, patches, powder, spray. The DEA says it is 40 to 50 times more potent than heroin. Experts say its potency can vary because it is haphazardly manufactured, creating the risk of instant death. Music legend Prince died of a fentanyl overdose in April, though authorities are still investigating whether it was obtained legally or illegally.

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids were involved in 5,554 overdose deaths in 2014, a 79 percent increase over 2013, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Statistics for 2015 and 2016 aren’t available, but narcotics officers say the problem is getting worse. The danger extends beyond the user. The potency makes it potentially deadly for first-responders. No police deaths have been blamed on fentanyl, but there have been close calls.

Atlantic County, New Jersey, detective Dan Kallen and colleagues were searching a home in August when they found a box full of drug paraphernalia, along with a bag of white powder. Kallen and detective Eric Price opened the bag and performed a field test to determine what it was. A small amount became airborne as Kallen closed up the bag, he said. Suddenly, both detectives became ill.

“It hit us like a ton of bricks,” Kallen, 40, said. “It became very difficult to breathe. Our hearts were racing. We were nauseous, close to blacking out. “I felt like, ‘Holy crap, I’m going to die right now,'” Kallen said. Both detectives were rushed to the hospital and made full recoveries. Testing later showed the confiscated drugs were cocaine and heroin mixed with fentanyl. “We got the party platter,” Kallen said.

Fighting the drug trade is inherently dangerous. In addition to the threat of violence posed by drug lords, distributors and dealers, narcotics officers face risks such as inadvertent needle pricks and exposure to deadly chemicals and fires from methamphetamine production. Fentanyl is a game-changer, though, many leading law enforcement officials told The Associated Press.

“We definitely see it as the next big danger,” Farmer said. “With fentanyl, if the officer is simply patting somebody down, or if he’s getting a little bit out to try to do a field test and it accidentally comes in contact with his skin or the wind blows it in his face, he could have a serious problem.”

The DEA issued a memo this month urging police to use caution from the outset of a stop. Officers should wear protective gloves before reaching into a suspect’s pockets in order to avoid skin contact with loose fentanyl, and wear masks to protect their lungs in case it becomes airborne. The DEA discouraged field testing of drugs, saying confiscated materials should be sent straight to a lab.

The drug is also affecting undercover work, which is the basis of many investigations. Lt. Jason Grellner of the Franklin County (Missouri) Sheriff’s Department said undercover officers are being told to accept drugs in baggies or aluminum foil, not directly by hand. “Any number of things can occur and kill you,” said Grellner, who is also the president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association. Sgt. Mike Toles, of the Indiana State Police, agreed. “We’re telling our people, ‘If someone is telling you this is methamphetamine or heroin, don’t take their word for it. Assume it is fentanyl,” Toles said.

The DEA keeps Narcan at the ready during undercover operations, with officers monitoring from afar ready to assist the undercover officer in case of exposure, Shroba said. The concerns extend to police dogs, which can be imperiled if they get too big a whiff of fentanyl. The DEA memo urges handlers to be careful with their dogs. “They’re going to take in a larger dose because that’s how they’re trained to sniff it out,” Shroba said.

Kallen, who has been a detective for 15 years, said his encounter forever changed the way he does his job. A majority of our stuff has fentanyl in it,” Kallen said. “We don’t even field test. It’s not worth it to open up those bags and put that stuff in the air or get it on your skin.”

DEA warns of Fentanyl’s ‘unprecedented threat’ to cops, K-9s

The DEA released a video to law enforcement nationwide about the dangers of improper handling and its deadly consequences—especially to drug-sniffing police dogs

Aug 15, 2016  By Christine Stapleton, The Palm Beach Post

WASHINGTON — Fentanyl, the powerful painkiller more than 50 times stronger than heroin, has become so prevalent that the Drug Enforcement Administration is warning police and first-responders not to touch or field-test drugs they suspect contain it.  Calling fentanyl an “unprecedented threat,” the DEA released a video to all law enforcement agencies nationwide about the dangers of improperly handling the drug and its deadly consequences — especially to drug-sniffing police dogs.   

“Fentanyl is being sold as heroin in virtually every corner of our country,” said acting Deputy Administrator Jack Riley. “A very small amount ingested, or absorbed through your skin, can kill you.”  Riley urged police to skip testing on the scene.  “Don’t field test it in your car, or on the street, or take it back to the office,” Riley said in the video. “Transport it directly to a laboratory, where it can be safely handled and tested.”  Boynton Beach Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said the DEA warning was “quite scary, but not something we’ve been blind to.”  “Anytime you have a substance that’s cooked up in people’s garages and labs, you never know what’s in it,” Katz said. “Every recipe is different.”

There seems to be no lull in efforts to invent increasingly more potent — and lethal — drugs, Katz said. That means more overdoses and higher risks for police, too. In one recent overdose, the drugs were so powerful that it took ten times the normal dose of naloxone, also known as Narcan, to revive the addict, Katz said.  “As the drugs become increasingly more toxic and cut with material that makes them more addictive and more deadly, exposure to that stuff is increasingly dangerous,” Katz said. “We’re running into drugs that are more potent than fentanyl.”

When Delray Beach police, test drugs they wear rubber gloves and paper masks, said Sgt. Paul Weber, with the department’s Vice, Intelligence & Narcotics unit.  “It’s safe to assume there is some fentanyl in all heroin bought around here,” Weber said. Dealers often mix heroin with fentanyl to increase profits, Weber added. But when drug dealers mix drugs, there is no quality control, like there is with prescription drugs, Weber said.  “Users are throwing dice every time they buy,” Weber said. “For that reason, it’s a hazard for law enforcement, too.”

During the past two years, the distribution of clandestinely manufactured fentanyl has been linked to an unprecedented outbreak of thousands of overdoses and deaths, according to a DEA news release. The overdoses are occurring at an alarming rate and are the basis for the officer safety alert.  Fentanyl is used in surgery as anesthesia and to treat chronic and severe pain. It is available in pills, a film that dissolves in the mouth and a transdermal patch, which delivers the drug directly through the skin. According to the DEA, the fentanyl being sold on the street is produced clandestinely in Mexico, and also comes directly from China.

Between 2005 and 2007, more than 1,000 U.S. deaths were attributed to fentanyl — many of which occurred in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. Last year in Palm Beach County, fentanyl was among the drugs responsible for 95 overdose deaths.  The drug is so potent that doses are measured in a microgram, one millionth of a gram — similar to just a few granules of table salt. The high levels of the drug found in fatal overdoses are especially alarming.

A 25-year-old West Palm Beach man who overdosed in April had six times more fentanyl in his system than a normal dose in a patch.   Although fentanyl is often mixed, Christian Ty Hernandez, a 23-year-old Wellington man, died in February of a pure dose of fentanyl.  The drug dealer who sold Hernandez the fentanyl, Christopher Massena, was convicted on Aug. 8 for selling Hernandez the fatal dose. He faces 100 years in prison for selling that dose and four others of heroin and fentanyl to undercover officers.

The DEA crackdown on fentanyl includes a major bust in Atlanta, which resulted in the seizure of 40 kilograms of fentanyl — initially believed to be bricks of cocaine — wrapped into blocks hidden in buckets and immersed in a thick fluid. The fentanyl from these seizures originated from Mexican drug trafficking organizations.  Fentanyl is also being sold as look-a-like hydrocodone or oxycodone tablets. The fentanyl tablets are marketed to mimic the authentic narcotic prescription medications and have led to multiple overdoses and deaths.