Fentanyl: The Newest and Deadliest Drug on the Street…

Posted by mpolkabla On July - 5 - 2017

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid which is 25 to 40 times more potent than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. When prescribed by a physician, fentanyl is often administered via injection, transdermal patch, or in lozenges as a treatment for pain. However, illegal non-pharmaceutical fentanyl is sold as a powder, spiked on blotter paper, mixed with or substituted for heroin, or as tablets that mimic other less potent opioids. Drug abuse can occur by users who will swallow, snort, or inject fentanyl, or even put blotter paper in their mouths so that fentanyl is absorbed through mucous membranes.  Such use is now becoming commonplace amongst drug users who use fentanyl as an additive to other illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroine, and methamphetamine (meth). Even though fentanyl (and fentanyl residue) is extremely toxic, there are currently no regulatory standards associated with the cleanup and decontamination of fentanyl residue contamination frequently found present on surfaces where use, manufacturing, and conversion has occurred.

Like heroin, morphine, and other opioid drugs, fentanyl works by binding to the body’s opioid receptors, which are found in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. When opioid drugs bind to these receptors, they can drive up dopamine levels in the brain’s reward areas, producing a state of euphoria and relaxation. Opioid receptors are also found in the areas of the brain that control breathing rate. Therefore, High doses of opioids, especially potent opioids such as fentanyl, can cause breathing to stop completely, which can lead to death. The high potency of fentanyl greatly increases risk of overdose, especially if a person who uses drugs is unaware that a powder or pill contains fentanyl. Fentanyl sold on the street is now most commonly mixed with heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine, which amplifies its potency as well as it’s potential dangers. Those who illegally purchase fentanyl pills or powder (readily available through mail order sources such as China) then process the pills into powder, through crushing and/or chemical extraction, and then add to these other drugs as a way to drastically increase the drug mixture’s potency.

Fentanyl is not only dangerous to users but also to law enforcement, first responders, and unknowing tenants as well.  In fact, based on our extensive experience in sampling residences following law enforcement actions, BioMax Environmental has found that fentanyl and other opioid residues will routinely exist on surfaces where the drug has been used, handled, processed, and even simply received via the mail.   Even an extremely minute amount (equivalent to just a few grains of salt) can be lethal and is often mistaken in powder form as cocaine, white powder heroin, or methamphetamine. According to published toxicological sources, as little as 20 micrograms may constitute a lethal human dose of the common opioid Carfentanil.  In fact, in May 2017 a police officer in East Liverpool, Ohio, collapsed and was rushed to the hospital after he inadvertently brushed a powdered fentanyl residue off his uniform, allowing the drug to enter his system through contact with his hands. The officer had encountered the fentanyl within an automobile earlier in the day while making a drug bust. He was immediately rushed to the hospital and given an opioid antidote. The medication given that reverses opioid overdose and restores normal respiration is an opioid receptor antagonist called naloxone.

Like methamphetamine, fentanyl residue may be present well after the drug is removed and with knowing how dangerous even the smallest exposure can be, this has become a very serious and pertinent issue. BioMax Environmental, Inc. has seen a significant increase in fentanyl-related drug lab cases in recent months and is currently consulting with the Cal/EPA’s Department of Toxics Substances Control (DTSC), Office of Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) in the development and implementation of current fentanyl assessment and cleanup regulations as well as cleanup standards within California. Because fentanyl is an extremely dangerous and toxic substance in even the smallest amounts, it is important to develop specific cleanup and decontamination strategies which are protective to cleanup workers, inspectors, first responders and future tenants/occupants.

BioMax Environmental, Inc., has extensive experience (over 20+ years) in methamphetamine and drug residue assessment sampling and in the supervision and oversight of the mitigative cleanup process throughout California and the western United States. Twenty years ago methamphetamine was the newest and deadliest drug on the street and BioMax was a leading pioneer in the assessment and mitigative cleanup of residues associated with this illicit drug. Now, once again, BioMax’s professionals are considered as the leaders in the assessment sampling and mitigative cleanup strategy of fentanyl residues present within properties in order to protect our community and the environment.

Much of the information regarding fentanyl composition and common uses and methods of absorption was gained from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  

by Tara M. Polkabla, Industrial Hygiene Technician, BioMax Environmental, Inc. 2017