Cops say they're being poisoned by fentanyl. Experts say the risk is 'extremely low' (2023)

Critics say U.S. government training videos like this one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exaggerate fears of fentanyl exposure among police. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hide caption

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Cops say they're being poisoned by fentanyl. Experts say the risk is 'extremely low' (2)

Critics say U.S. government training videos like this one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exaggerate fears of fentanyl exposure among police.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Last December, Officer Courtney Bannick was on the job for the Tavares, Fla., police department when she came into contact with a powder she believed was street fentanyl.

The footage from another officer's body camera shows Bannick appearing to lose consciousness before being lowered to the ground by other cops.

"I was light-headed a little bit," Bannick later told WKMG, a local television station. "I was choking, I couldn't breathe."

Other officers can be heard on the tape describing Bannick's medical condition as an overdose. They administered Narcan, a medication that reverses opioid poisoning.

"She's breathing," a cop says. "Stay with me!"

The Tavares police department blamed the incident on fentanyl. Local officials declined NPR's requests for an interview, as did Bannick. Speaking with WKMG, a television station in Orlando, she said she felt lucky to be alive.

"If I didn't have backup there, I wouldn't be here today," she said soon after the incident.

Reports of police suffering severe medical symptoms after touching or inhaling powdered fentanyl are common, occurring "every few weeks" around the U.S. according to experts interviewed by NPR.

But many experts say these officers aren't experiencing fentanyl or opioid overdoses.

"This has never happened," said Dr. Ryan Marino, a toxicologist and emergency room physician who studies addiction at Case Western Reserve University. "There has never been an overdose through skin contact or accidentally inhaling fentanyl."

A dangerous street drug that poses "extremely low" risk to officers

Many police officers clearly believe fentanyl poses a significant risk. The synthetic opioid is powerful, killing tens of thousands of Americans every year.

But medical experts say it's difficult to get fentanyl into the body. That's why people addicted to the drug often smoke it or inject it using needles.

Seizures of fentanyl have escalated in recent years and the synthetic opioid is common on American streets. Many police feel their health is threatened by contact with trace amounts of the drug. US Justice Department hide caption

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US Justice Department

Cops say they're being poisoned by fentanyl. Experts say the risk is 'extremely low' (4)

Seizures of fentanyl have escalated in recent years and the synthetic opioid is common on American streets. Many police feel their health is threatened by contact with trace amounts of the drug.

US Justice Department

"Fentanyl does not pass through the skin efficiently or well," Marino said. "The dry powder form that's encountered in street drugs is not going to pass through the skin in any meaningful way."

Researchers also say the risk of fentanyl powder poisoning someone when it's airborne like dust is extremely low.

"There's never been a toxicologically confirmed case," said Brandon Del Pozo, a former police chief who studies addiction and drug policy at Brown University." The idea of it hanging in the air and getting breathed in is highly highly implausible - it's nearly impossible."

NPR reached out to the Tavares Florida police department and Officer Bannick asking for toxicology reports or other information confirming she was affected by fentanyl. They declined to make that medical information public.

We also contacted numerous other law enforcement and government agencies, as well as researchers around the U.S.

We couldn't find a single case of a police officer who reported being poisoned by fentanyl or overdosing after encountering the street drug that was confirmed by toxicology reports.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a statement to NPR saying the agency does believe some officers nationwide have experienced medical symptoms after encountering fentanyl. None of those cases involved actual overdoses and none appeared life-threatening.

"The health effects...were such that responders needed medical attention and could not continue performing their duties," said Dr. L Casey Chosewood with the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

One 2021 case study cited by CDC of a police department in Ohio found common symptoms described by police included lightheadedness, palpitations, and nausea.

Symptoms of stress and fear, not opioid overdose

Del Pozo believes the real risk to police officers from street fentanyl isn't accidental overdose. He says the more serious health impact is being caused by anxiety and stress, driven by fear.

"Imagine you do a job every day where you just think being near a certain car or a certain person [who might have fentanyl] could kill you," Del Pozo said.

Officials walk past images of illegal drugs outside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building on May 13, 2021, in Los Angeles. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP hide caption

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Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Cops say they're being poisoned by fentanyl. Experts say the risk is 'extremely low' (6)

Officials walk past images of illegal drugs outside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building on May 13, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

"It's a real mental health problem for officers. It's just not necessary to have that fear."

Del Pozo said many reported fentanyl overdoses among police involve symptoms that look more like panic attacks than opioid overdoses.

"So when an officer just at the thought of being exposed to fentanyl falls over, goes unconscious or panics, that's a health problem. That's something the officer needs help for."

Experts say this heightened fear grew after the first fentanyl warnings were issued by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration half a decade ago.

In June 2017, Chuck Rosenberg, head of the DEA under Presidents Obama and Trump, appeared in a video urging cops to treat fentanyl as a major risk.

"Fentanyl is deadly," Rosenberg warned. "Exposure to an amount equivalent to a few grains of sand can kill you."

A few months later, however, toxicology researchers issued a report contradicting that assessment. They too could find no cases where officers had been poisoned by fentanyl.

"The risk of clinically significant exposure to emergency responders is extremely low," they concluded.

Warnings remain, despite lack of confirmed cases

The DEA's website still includes a warning to police about the risks of brief skin contact or inhalation of airborne powder.

Researchers say the risk to police officers from street fentanyl exposure is "extremely low," but warnings like this one can be found on the Drug Enforcement Administration's website. Drug Enforcement Administration hide caption

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Drug Enforcement Administration

Cops say they're being poisoned by fentanyl. Experts say the risk is 'extremely low' (8)

Researchers say the risk to police officers from street fentanyl exposure is "extremely low," but warnings like this one can be found on the Drug Enforcement Administration's website.

Drug Enforcement Administration

"Inhalation of airborne powder is MOST LIKELY to lead to harmful effects, but is less likely to occur than skin contact," the advisory cautions, "The safety and health of the community, including our law enforcement partners, is a priority of the Drug Enforcement Administration," a DEA official said in a statement to NPR. "DEA has consistently followed CDC guidelines on preventing occupational exposure to fentanyl."

The CDC website does urge caution, including the wearing of gloves, masks and other protective gear.

"We are currently updating and revising our guidance in this area to reflect new information and ongoing health hazard evaluations," a CDC spokeperson said in a statement. "We anticipate this guidance will be available within the next month."

Speaking on background, some officials suggested to NPR it is safer for warnings to remain in place so police err on the side of caution.

But Marino, the toxicologist and emergency room physician at Case Western Reserve University, believes exaggerated fears of fentanyl make it harder for police to do their jobs protecting the public.

"I have seen this play out in reality where someone who is truly experiencing an overdose, overdosed on fentanyl, will not be resuscitated appropriately or in a timely manner because of this fear that getting close to them or touching them could cause some kind of second hand overdose."

An image from a CDC training video for first responders who work in contact with illicit street drugs including fentanyl. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hide caption

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Cops say they're being poisoned by fentanyl. Experts say the risk is 'extremely low' (10)

An image from a CDC training video for first responders who work in contact with illicit street drugs including fentanyl.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

With fentanyl deaths still at record levels, local police are often the first responders on the scene. Experts say how they're trained, how they view the dangers of fentanyl and how they do their jobs could mean life or death for many people with addiction.

FAQs

Are police at risk with fentanyl? ›

Researchers say the risk to police officers from street fentanyl exposure is "extremely low," but warnings like this one can be found on the Drug Enforcement Administration's website.

Is fentanyl a first responder risk? ›

Fentanyl-related substances are designed to be absorbed into the body by all means, including injection, oral ingestion, contact with mucous membranes, inhalation, and via transdermal transmission (through the skin). As such, accidental exposure by first responders is a real danger.

What is the risk of fentanyl in drugs? ›

Fentanyl and Overdose

Even in small doses, it can be deadly. Over 150 people die every day from overdoses related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Drugs may contain deadly levels of fentanyl, and you wouldn't be able to see it, taste it, or smell it.

How many people have died from fentanyl? ›

The fentanyl category of opioids accounted for 67,325 preventable deaths in 2021, representing a 26% increase over the 53,480 total in 2020.

Are police dogs trained to smell fentanyl? ›

Earning the CNCA's fentanyl certification required focused, long-term work with the animals. Initial training takes many hours of imprinting, teaching the dogs to recognize the fentanyl drug odor.

How strong is illegal fentanyl? ›

Producing illicit fentanyl is not an exact science. Two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal depending on a person's body size, tolerance and past usage. DEA analysis has found counterfeit pills ranging from .02 to 5.1 milligrams (more than twice the lethal dose) of fentanyl per tablet.

How many first responders died from fentanyl? ›

Wherever first responders reported symptoms due to passive exposure to fentanyl, no deaths have been reported. Symptoms of it include slowed respiratory rate, pinpoint pupils, decreased consciousness, and cold or clammy skin.

What is safe handling of fentanyl? ›

Wear respiratory protection if powdered illicit drugs are visible or suspected. Avoid performing tasks or operations that may cause illicit drugs to become airborne. Do not touch the eyes, nose, or mouth after touching any surface that may be contaminated, even if wearing gloves.

How much fentanyl can an ambulance give you? ›

The liberal treatment protocol allowed EMTs/PMs to administer intravenous fentanyl at a maximum dose of 3 μg/kg, with the first dose limited to 1.5 μg/kg.

Who invented fentanyl? ›

Fentanyl was created in 1959 by Dr. Paul Janssen as an intravenous surgical analgesic. The drug is 50–100 times more potent than morphine.

Where is the faces of fentanyl exhibit? ›

The DEA Museum and Faces of Fentanyl exhibit are located at 700 Army Navy Drive, Arlington, Va., 22202. There is metered street parking around the building and a parking garage at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City across the street.

Can a drug dog smell drugs inside you? ›

They are commonly used in airports, train stations, ports, and other locations to sniff out drugs that may be concealed on a person or in luggage. However, sniffer dogs are not capable of smelling illicit drugs inside the human body.

Does fentanyl make dogs cry? ›

Usually tolerated well by animals. High doses can cause severe sedation, howling or whining, slowed heart and breathing rates.

What happens if a dog sniffs fentanyl? ›

Just a few inhaled grains of fentanyl can cause a dog to overdose. A police handler may not see a fentanyl threat to a K9 dog until it is too late.

What is 100 stronger than fentanyl? ›

(WYMT) - Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid and 100 times more powerful than fentanyl. It is also deadly.

Is fentanyl 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine? ›

Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as an analgesic (pain relief) and anesthetic. It is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin as an analgesic.

How strong is 50 mg of fentanyl? ›

The analgesia produced is sufficient for surgery involving moderately painful procedures. Giving a dose of 50 micrograms/kg fentanyl will provide intense analgesia for some four to six hours, for intensely stimulating surgery. Fentanyl may also be given as an infusion.

What happens if you give narcan to someone who doesn t need it? ›

Naloxone Will Not Harm Someone Who Does Not Have Opioids in Their System. If someone is having a medical emergency other than an opioid overdose – such as a diabetic coma or cardiac arrest – giving them naloxone will generally not have any effect or cause them additional harm.

Can you overdose on fentanyl by performing CPR? ›

The published statements that two of the victims absorbed enough fentanyl to overdose while performing CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation are dubious and scientifically extremely unlikely.

How can you prevent death from fentanyl? ›

What is Naloxone? Naloxone is a medication that can reverse an overdose from opioids — including fentanyl. Keeping it on hand could mean the difference between life and death.

Where does fentanyl come from? ›

The precursor chemicals making up the essential ingredients of fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances is from China. After being shipped to Mexico, the chemicals are produced into fentanyl-containing tablets and enters the United States via our southern border.

What is the original name of fentanyl? ›

Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid. It was introduced into medical practice as an intravenous anesthetic under the trade name of Sublimaze in the 1960s.

Where is the best place for fentanyl? ›

Apply the patch to a dry, flat skin area on your upper arm, chest, or back. Choose a place where the skin is not very oily and is free of scars, cuts, burns, or irritation. Do not apply this medicine to areas that have received radiation treatment.

Where is the best place to put fentanyl? ›

You can apply a fentanyl patch to your chest, back, upper arms, or the sides of your waist. If you are applying the patch to a child or to a person who is unable to think clearly, choose an area on the upper back to make it more difficult for the person to remove the patch and place it in his or her mouth.

How is fentanyl put on the streets? ›

The majority of fentanyl is mass-produced in Mexico using chemicals from China before being pressed into pills or mixed with other counterfeit pills made to look like Xanax, Adderall, or oxycodone. The counterfeit drugs are then sold to unaware buyers.

Can you do CPR on a fentanyl overdose? ›

If you walk into a space and find someone who has overdosed on fentanyl it is certainly safe to evaluate them, call 911 for help, administer naloxone and even do CPR.

Why do paramedics use fentanyl instead of morphine? ›

Fentanyl and morphine are both counteracted by naloxone; however, fentanyl has a shorter onset of action, shorter duration, and far fewer side effects making it an appealing candidate for pre-hospital pain management.

What is the heart rate of a fentanyl overdose? ›

Low or irregular heart rate

For example, a client who reported using fentanyl had an overdose characterized by a slowing of breathing, cyanotic face, and heart rate dropping to 38 bpm.

What drugs absorb through skin? ›

Drugs commonly administered transdermally include:
  • Nicotine.
  • Fentanyl (opioid).
  • Nitroglycerine (antianginal).
  • Buprenorphine (opioid).
  • Ensam (antidepressant).
  • Daytrana (transdermal Ritalin).
  • Scopolamine (anti-nausea).
  • Estrogen and testosterone.
Nov 14, 2022

How many more times stronger is fentanyl than morphine? ›

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

Is Dilaudid stronger than morphine? ›

Dilaudid is used to treat moderate-to-severe pain symptoms. Due to its high potential for addiction, Dilaudid is usually reserved for short-term therapeutic use. Despite this, while it is roughly 10 times more potent than morphine, Dilaudid is still only about one-tenth as strong as fentanyl.

Is fentanyl in epidural? ›

Fentanyl is an opioid analgesic used to treat obstetrical pain in parturient women through epidural or intravenous route, and unfortunately can also be abused by pregnant women.

References

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