09/22/17

Be Careful Out There

© cylonphoto | 123rf.com

Recently, around 6 a.m. on a Wednesday, several law enforcement agencies executed federal search warrants at three locations in the West End area of Pittsburgh. In one home, when the SWAT team members entered, one of the suspects was trying to escape through a back window. Another one of the suspects knocked over a table where they had been bagging drugs, “causing the powder narcotics to become airborne” and exposing the SWAT officers to the airborne drug. Eighteen of them were taken to the hospital suffering from various symptoms.

According to Brenda Waters of KDKA, the CBS Pittsburgh affiliate, all eighteen were medically cleared. “None of the … law enforcement officers taking part in the early morning raid were adversely affected by the drugs.” The agencies participating in the raid included Pittsburgh Police, Pittsburgh SWAT, U.S. Immigration and Customs, state police and Homeland Security. In addition to the airborne substance, they found more than 1,000 stamp bags, 250 grams of unpackaged drugs and a “significant quantity of white powder” on a plate in the kitchen. The airborne substance was probably fentanyl; maybe carfentanil.

Dr. Tureurro, the chief of Emergency Services at UPMC Mercy Hospital, where the officers were treated, said they were fortunate to get out of the situation quickly, thus minimizing their symptoms. They had burning sensations in their throats; some became lightheaded; others were nauseous. “The big thing that we did for them is we basically decreased the chance that they could be exposed to anything that was laying on their bodies or on their clothes.” By removing their clothes, then showering and decontaminating themselves, the officers decreased their chances of exposure to any of the substance. The Justice Department press release said:

Fentanyl exposure is an all too real risk to law enforcement as we learned this morning. Quick and professional action by first responders helped avert a potential catastrophe.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the raid originated from a May investigation by Customs and Border Protection when agents intercepted a fentanyl package marked as “plastic fittings” that was shipped from Hong Kong. The accused leader of the drug operation had a history of repeated arrests for felony drug convictions and disregarding bond conditions in his repeated arrests for drug related charges. He had been initially arrested for possession and distribution on June 1st in relation to the intercepted package of fentanyl from Hong Kong. He was rearrested on July 20th, discarding a brick of fentanyl on the floor of a police car taking him to jail, and then again on August 2nd. Each time he was released on bond he resumed his criminal activities. This time he did not receive bail.

This is not an isolated or freak occurrence. In September of 2016, The Washington Post reported on a raid in Harford Connecticut when 11 SWAT officers were exposed to airborne fentanyl and heroin. The powder may have blown into the air after the tactical team tossed a flash-bang grenade, or the suspects could have swept the table where they were packaging the drugs. The officers moved through a “cloud of dust in the air.” Several officers were lightheaded, nauseous; they had sore throats and headaches. As a precaution, the entire team went to a local hospital for treatment.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said this has been an inherent risk for law enforcement for decades, beginning with “The granddaddy of all problems—being exposed to meth labs.” A DEA spokesperson said law enforcement officers are concerned with protecting themselves and the public.

Law enforcement officers do carry a bigger burden than ever — we are fighting to protect the American public from poisons that bring death and destruction to our communities — but we are also faced with challenges of educating the public as to the deadly risks of these substances and about the inextricable links between misuse of prescription opioids to heroin and fentanyl use and addiction.

Kelly Burch reported for The Fix that in May of 2017 when an East Liverpool Ohio police officer helped in the arrest of drug suspects, they tore open bags of the drugs in an attempt to destroy evidence. Back at the station, the officer noticed a white powder on his uniform and tried to brush it away. “I had placed my thumb, and index finger in it and tried to brush it off. I don’t know if it went through my skin or if it became airborne when I wiped it off, or a combination of both.” Within a few minutes, he didn’t feel like himself. The last thing he remembered was falling backwards into the door.

He received a dose of Narcan at the station and a few more at the hospital. “Never in a million years did I think I would be in the hospital for something that serious, for overdosing.” He knew the job was dangerous and might encounter guns and knives. But “you’re not thinking that a particle of dust or drug killing you.” The experience made him even more determined to keep these powerful drugs off the streets: “I am not letting drug dealers win, you may have almost killed me, but you’re not going to win, you’re not going to come to this city and bring that poison.”

Another Ohio encounter with fentanyl took place in early August of 2017 in Massillion, about 50 miles south of Cleveland. Three nurses at the Affinity Medical Center in Massilon lost consciousness while they were cleaning a room where an overdose victim had been treated. All three were treated with naloxone and are said to have recovered. The nurses union at the hospital  wanted to meet with hospital officials to discuss protocols for environmental contamination, but the hospital declined, saying it already has effective policies. Hmmm … with three nurses becoming unconscious, it seems a review of the policies woudn’t hurt.

CTV Vancouver reported in October of 2016 that the CBSA, Canada’s Border Services Agency advised its officers to avoid contact with a package they suspect contains fentanyl. The president of Canada’s Customs and Immigration Union said: “What we’re telling our officers at this time, from a health and safety point of view, is that if there’s a package and they think there could fentanyl, they shouldn’t touch it. They shouldn’t approach it.” If an agent believes a package contains the drug, they are advised to give it to supervisors. “We need to approach this so our officers have the right tools, right training and the right equipment.”

In a June 2016 press release, the DEA announced they had released a short Roll Call Video to all law enforcement agencies about the dangers of improperly handling fentanyl. You can watch the video here. The press release said the DEA was concerned about law enforcement coming in contact with fentanyl on the streets in the course of enforcement activities, such as buy-walk or buy-bust operations. “Officers should be aware that while unadulterated fentanyl may resemble cocaine or heroin powder, it can be mixed with other substances which can alter its appearance.” The report noted the current outbreak involved not just fentanyl, but fentanyl compounds (like carfentanil) as well.

Universal precautions must be applied when conducting field-testing on drugs that are not suspected of containing fentanyl. Despite color and appearance, you can never be certain what you are testing. In general, field-testing of drugs should be conducted as appropriate, in a well ventilated area according to commercial test kit instructions and training received. Sampling of evidence should be performed very carefully to avoid spillage and release of powder into the air. At a minimum, gloves should be worn and the use of masks is recommended. After conducting the test, hands should be washed with copious amounts of soap and water. Never attempt to identify a substance by taste or odor.

The DEA published “A Briefing Guide for First Responders” on fentanyl. It contained a history of fentanyl, a description of illicit forms of fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances, the risks of exposure and treatment, as well as decontamination recommendations.

Fentanyl was first synthesized in 1959 by a Belgian chemist. Other forms of pharmaceutical fentanyl were developed for pain management, including a transdermal patch, a nasal spray, a sublingual tab and a flavored lollipop—yes a fentanyl lollipop. While pharmaceutical fentanyl is diverted on a small scale, the current problem is due to transnational criminal organizations competing for the U.S. market.

China and Mexico appear to be the main source countries for illicit fentanyl smuggled into the United States for domestic‐based processing and distribution. Seizures indicate that China supplies lower volumes of high‐purity fentanyl, whereas fentanyl seizures from Mexico are higher volume but lower in purity. Fentanyl is also routed and smuggled through Canada. China‐based trafficking organizations have also been known to use the internet to distribute fentanyl, fentanyl‐related substances, and synthetic opioids globally.

Among the current fentanyl-related substances on the illicit market are: 4‐fluoroisobutyryl fentanyl, furanyl‐fentanyl, acryl‐fentanyl, acetyl‐fentanyl, carfentanil, and 3‐methylfentanyl, and other synthetic opioids such as U‐47700. I’ve written previously on this website about the fentanyl-related substance, carfentanil (“The Devil in Ohio”). Recently I received an unsolicited email from a “company” in Shanghi offering to send me a free sample of carfentanil. The DEA “Briefing Guide for First Responders” warned that some organizations are distributing pure fentanyl.

During the first quarter of 2017 the DEA indentified 230 instances of fentanyl, fentanyl-related substances and other synthetic opioids in seized drug evidence. The following graphic illustrates the results of their analysis. Fentanyl accounted for about 58% of the identifications. Of those 134 fentanyl identifications, 61% of the samples were combined with heroin; 28% were fentanyl alone. Carfentanil was found in six identifications. U-47700, alprazolam (Xanax) and cocaine’s were found in others.

Because of their hazardous nature, fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances are a serious threat to the health and safety of law enforcement officers and other first responders, such as EMTs. As little as 2-3 milligrams of fentanyl could bring on respiratory depression and possibly death. “When visually compared 2 to 3 milligrams of fentanyl is about the same as five to seven individual grains of table salt.” See the above photo of a penny.

The “Briefing Guide for First Responders” went on to describe treatment for any exposure to fentanyl, repeating some of the actions taken in the above situations:

  • seek immediate medical attention.
  • remove the person from the contaminated environment, preferably where there is fresh air.
  • If a suspected fentanyl-related substance has been inhaled, move the person to fresh air.
  • If there are overdose symptoms, immediately administer naloxone, which can quickly reverse an opioid overdose.
  • Multiple doses may be necessary, depending upon the drug’s purity and potency. Continue to administer a dose of naloxone every 2-3 minutes until the individual is breathing on their own for at least 15 minutes or until EMS arrives.
  • Someone who entered a badly contaminated area or was otherwise exposed to a suspected fentanyl-related laboratory or milling operation without wearing the proper protective clothing should undress and shower with soap and water as soon as possible.
  • If a suspected fentanyl-related substance was ingested through the mouth or eyes and the person is conscious, rinse their eyes and mouth with cool water.
  • When there has been any skin contact, wash the exposed area immediately with soap and water.
  • Do NOT use hand sanitizer, as it may contain alcohol, which is a skin penetrant. This may increase the absorption of fentanyl through the skin.

So if you are a first responder or law enforcement officer—or if for some reason you find yourself exposed to fentanyl—remember the above advice. And first responders and law enforcement officers, remember the safety call given by Michael Conrad, who played the role of Sergeant Phil Esterhaus in Hill Street Blues: “Let’s be careful out there.”

08/30/16

The Devil in Ohio

© Olena Yakobchuk | 123rf.com

© Olena Yakobchuk | 123rf.com

Around the beginning of July 2016, there were a series of overdoses and deaths in Akron Ohio. The ABC News affiliate in Cleveland reported there had been 173 overdoses in Akron by July 22; 16 of which were fatal.  Some of the first people to overdose had not shot up—they were snorting what they thought was heroin. “As soon as I sniffed it, I knew something was up because it got me feeling super intense,” he said. When I woke up, I was on a stretcher. I was freaking out because I didn’t know what happened. I was tied down.”

The overdoses are being attributed to a street mixture of heroin and carfentanil, an opioid considered to be 4,000 times as potent as heroin. There were some misleading news reports at the time suggesting that heroin users themselves were mixing heroin and carfentanil (carfentanyl). Reporting for Cincinnati.com, Terry DeMio said that the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition warned carfentanil had been found in the local heroin of Cincinnati, Akron and Columbus. Dr. Marc Fishman said: “Carfentanil is one of the most potent opioids known, as an anesthetic agent by veterinarians for large animals, not used for humans.” Veterinarians who are licensed to use it cover up hands, arms and faces when they use it … and they keep naloxone handy.

Then the overdoses started happening again in the Cincinnati area. The Washington Post reported there were 78 overdoses and at least three deaths during a 48-hour period. By the end of the week, the overdose total has reached 174. Some of the overdose victims required multiple doses of naloxone to reverse the effects. Although they are still awaiting the lab results, the police believe this is another batch of heroin mixed with carfentanil. So far law enforcement has not been able to identify the source of the mixture. Newtown Police Chief Tom Synan said:

These people are intentionally putting in drugs they know can kill someone. . . . The benefit for them is if the user survives, it is such a powerful high for them, they tend to come back. … If one or two people die, they could care less. They know the supply is so big right now that if you lose some customers, in their eyes, there’s always more in line.

WKRC in Cincinnati reported thirty overdoses in the course of just one day—Tuesday August 23rd. One man overdosed while driving through an intersection. Another man overdosed at a gas station; with his child in the car. Three other people overdosed in the same house. “It was too early to tell if the spike in overdoses Tuesday night, August 23, had anything to do with carfentanil. But, it was found in several places throughout the city of Cincinnati in early August 2016.”

carfentanil molecule

carfentanil molecule

So what exactly is carfentanil? According to PubChem, carfentanil is an analog drug of fentanyl that was first synthesized in 1974 by a team of chemists working for Janssen Pharmaceuticals. It’s marketed under the trade name of Wildnil as a general anesthetic for large animals, like elephants and rhinoceros. Its extreme potency makes it an inappropriate agent for human use, unless you happen to be a Walter White-type of entrepreneur with heroin. It is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance.

A 2012 study found evidence that the Russian military used an aerosol form of carfentanil and remifentil in the 2002 Moscow theatre incident to subdue Chechen hostage takers. The Washington Post reported the death toll was 170 people; only 40 of the dead were attackers. Because of the lack of information provided to emergency workers, they didn’t bring enough naloxone or naltrexone to prevent the complications experienced by the gassed victims “from both respiratory failure and aerosol inhalation during the incident.” A 10 mg dose of carfentanil could sedate or kill a 15,000-pound elephant or take down a musk ox, bull moose or full grown buffalo. The same amount could kill 500 human beings.

Heroin cut with carfentanil offers a harder-hitting, longer-lasting high and allows dealers a shortcut to increase their supplies. But users often don’t know what they’re getting. In recent months, authorities have linked carfentanil to a spike in overdoses in several states, and have warned that it could spread to others.

On August 9, 2016 Canadian border officials reported they had intercepted a one-kilogram package of carfentanil heading to Calgary from China. The package was shipped to a 24 year-old man at his home address and labeled as “printer accessories.” A kilogram of carfentanil is equivalent to four metric tons of pure heroin. The package could have produced 50 million doses. Roslyn MacVicar of the Canadian Border Services Agency said: “It is hard to imagine what the impact could have been if even the smallest amounts of this drug were to have made its way to the street.”

In a DEA report Donald Cooper presciently thought that analogs of fentanyl would become a future drug of abuse He indicated that the already published synthesis schemes for fentanyl compounds allow for a variety of precursor chemicals to be used in synthesizing the drugs. The DEA became aware of this potentiality from the confiscated notes from an anonymous clandestine laboratory. Two formulas for synthesizing carfentanil have been extracted from separate volumes of the Journal of Organic Chemistry and made available for any enterprising chemist in “Synthesis of Carfentanil” on Erowid. The DEA indicated that over 12 different analogues of fentanyl have been clandestinely produced and identified in the U.S. drug traffic.

Interviewed by CBS News, Kevin McCutheon of Akron Ohio is a long-time addict. He believes when he overdosed he ingested carfentanil. He said he had used fentanyl and has been “doin’ dope,” but this wasn’t the same. The interviewer commented that he had tears in his eyes. He said it was because he was here and knew he shouldn’t be. “It’s the devil.”