Fentanyl came into the national spotlight after it was revealed that the opioid caused the death of legendary musician Prince in April of 2016. Much of the attention surrounding fentanyl has been focused on the prescription form and the increasing trend of it being used as an additive to heroin. The drug is described as 50-100 times more powerful than morphine, but the true danger is perhaps only now being realized. After several recent incidents, officials are now warning mere physical contact with the drug, not just ingestion, could prove deadly.
The most shocking case of fentanyl exposure occurred last month in Florida, where authorities now believe it caused the death of 10-year-old Alton Banks . Officials say Banks went swimming at a local pool, but later became ill and eventually died as a result of a fentanyl overdose. Authorities say there was no fentanyl in the boy’s home, and speculate he must have come into contact with the drug either at the pool or on his way home. They say the overdose could be the result of something as benign as touching a towel with fentanyl residue on it.
But some experts question this explanation, saying although fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin, they have no evidence of anyone dying from skin contact with the drug. They say it’s more likely that Banks somehow inhaled the substance through the air, as respiratory ingestion is more commonly associated with overdose symptoms. Still, there is little research on how inadvertent fentanyl exposure affects small children.
Accidental contact with fentanyl also landed a number of law enforcement officers in the hospital this year, with at least one resulting in an overdose. During a traffic stop in May, an officer in East Liverpool, Ohio, discovered a man and his car covered in a powdery substance. More than an hour later, the officer brushed some residue off of his shirt, and soon fell to the floor. The officer had overdosed on fentanyl, but was later revived with a total of four doses of Narcan.
Multiple officers in Connecticut, Ohio, and other places have also reported falling ill after being exposed to fentanyl. The exposure often happened during drug busts, and the fact that the officers had such minor contact with the substance once again raises the issue of respiratory ingestion and the extreme potency of the drug. The issue is also pertinent for addiction treatment providers who may encounter clients still in possession of the drug.
Last month, the DEA sent out an alert warning about the dangers fentanyl poses to first responders. For those working in fields where they may become exposed to fentanyl, the CDC released safety guidelines for handling the substance, urging all emergency responders and treatment providers to use caution around unknown substances.