Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis has reissued an alert on the dangerous synthetic opioid carfentanil because it recently emerged near Pittsburgh.
The drug is so potent, it can harm people simply by touching it or inhaling it.
“It has made its way to Pennsylvania, and since this happened, all district attorneys have been on high alert and urge anybody who comes into contact with the drug to be cautious,” said Salavantis, who put out a warning in August after the drug caused a rash of overdoses in Ohio.
Used to sedate bears, elephants and other large animals, carfentanil has a clinical potency 10,000 times higher than morphine or pure heroin and 100 times higher than fentanyl, another synthetic opioid painkiller, according to information from the state Department of Health.
Carfentanil and other fentanyl-related compounds can come in several forms, including powder, blotter paper, tablets and spray, federal drug officials say. These drugs are deadly in very low doses, and dealers and buyers may not know exactly what they are selling or ingesting.
Salavantis is fearful for emergency responders, police and others who may come into contact with carfentanil because it can be absorbed through the skin or unknowingly inhaled when it is airborne.
The district attorney said she has stressed in law enforcement training that police officers and emergency responders should wear masks and gloves when responding to overdoses or any cases involving drugs.
Cleaning personnel also should be on guard because Salavantis said she increasingly receives reports of drug paraphernalia and other evidence of drug activity in public bathrooms.
“It makes me nervous because the people cleaning up after these individuals may not know how dangerous this drug is. Everyone who is near someone using drugs has to be super cautious,” she said.
Salavantis has been advising police to stop field-testing drugs at scenes. Field testing yields preliminary results that may be used in initial court proceedings as police await lab results that may take months, she said.
“Just opening a bag of suspected drugs could prove fatal, and the risks far outweigh any gains of field testing,” Salavantis said.
Resistant to antidote
County Coroner William Lisman said he and his deputies already wear gloves when they respond, but he is contemplating other protective measures. His office processed a record 140 drug overdose deaths last year, some involving furanyl fentanyl, another synthetic substance more powerful than heroin.
The antidote Narcan often is ineffective or must be administered several times when furanyl fentanyl is present, officials have said.
David J. Lozier, the district attorney in Beaver County near Pittsburgh, said Friday he has investigated three deaths due to the more potent “super fentanyl” — two involving carfentanil and the other acryl fentanyl, another hybrid. A 17-year-old also overdosed from carfentanil but survived, he said.
Charges have been filed against two men for allegedly selling the carfentanil to 21-year-old Bryan Lantz, who died in December, and 24-year-old Chelsey Newberry, who died in November, Lozier said.
The victim in the Jan. 8 death involving acryl fentanyl will be identified if charges are filed against an alleged supplier, said Lozier. Acryl fentanyl is being sold as a designer drug and “tends to be resistant to Narcan,” the DA noted.
Luzerne County has budgeted more funding for autopsies this year in an attempt to pursue charges against those who furnish illegal drugs to overdose victims.
Lozier said he and others across the state also are pushing legislators to amend aggravated assault statutes to make it a crime to sell narcotics that result in overdose or serious bodily injury.
Beaver County had 102 overdose deaths last year and another 600 overdoses that did not result in death, he said. Luzerne County officials have said they do not have a comprehensive statistic on the number of non-fatal overdoses here.
After the carfentanil was discovered in Beaver County, Lozier said he asked police to stop on-scene drug testing and sent bulletins urging police, responders and others near drugs, drug residue and paraphernalia to take precautions, particularly because it can be airborne.
“It can be blown into the air if you open a door or there is air conditioning, and even the lightest puff, the slightest inhalation, can cause someone to overdose,” Lozier said.
A police officer in his county overdosed in the fall when powder fentanyl on a table became airborne from opening a door during a drug sting, he said. Narcan was administered to the officer, who was transported to a hospital and survived.
“That’s why it’s important that police carry Narcan, and we’re putting it in all our schools too,” he said.
Lately, testing in Beaver County drug death cases has identified more instances of fentanyl and similar concoctions, sometimes mixed with cocaine and other fillers, with little or no heroin present, Lozier said. In the past, the culprit was often heroin laced with fentanyl.
“We’re finding very little heroin now in the death cases. It’s fentanyl or worse. There are a number of different fentanyl designer versions coming into the country,” he said.
These drugs are “completely synthetic” and can be manufactured in a factory, avoiding the need for a heroin supply from poppy plant growers in other countries, Lozier said.
Drug experts across the country have theorized dealers are turning to furanyl fentanyl and other designer drugs because they can’t meet the high demand for pure heroin or because they want to make their products stand out amid competition. China has been blamed for supplying much of this fentanyl.
“It’s a slow turn from heroin to fentanyl,” explained Lozier.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced Friday that China’s National Narcotics Control Commission will ban the sale of four fentanyl-class substances on March 1 – carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, valeryl fentanyl and acryl fentanyl — in response to ongoing discussions between both countries.
“Fentanyl-related compounds represent a significant and deadly component of the current opioid crisis. These actions will undoubtedly save American lives, and I would like to thank my Chinese counterparts for their actions on this important issue,” said Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg in a release.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.