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.