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You Won’t Die from Touching Fentanyl

Fears around fentanyl are making people think they are accidentally overdosing on it. Only problem is, their symptoms are the wrong ones.

On the fictional cop show Blue Bloods, in the appropriately titled episode “Pain Killers,” detective Maria Baez picks up a tray containing drug paraphernalia and a white powder and is soon seen on a gurney, fighting for her life, as a healthcare worker proclaims, “Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. The slightest exposure can trigger an overdose.” As reported by Lindsey Ellefson for BuzzFeed News, the night the episode premiered, over eight million people watched it.

The belief that simply coming into contact with fentanyl can kill you is widespread within law enforcement. But is it true?

Where fentanyl comes from

In 1960, Dr. Paul Janssen, the founder of the Belgian company Janssen Pharmaceuticals (which would later be bought by Johnson & Johnson), synthesized a new opioid: fentanyl.

Opioids act on specific receptors in our body, which results in pain relief. Opium has been used by humanity for millennia: it is the milky fluid from the opium poppy. In 1804, a specific opioid from this latex was extracted. Named morphine, it would be adopted for pain relief and as a general anesthetic a few decades later. But what Janssen wanted was to create in the laboratory the most potent and fast-acting pain reliever. He succeeded by synthesizing fentanyl, which would be approved for use in Europe in 1963 and in the United States in 1968. To this day, fentanyl is the most widely used synthetic opioid in medicine.

When fentanyl binds to certain opioid receptors in our body, the effect is euphoria, drowsiness, relaxation, and pain and anxiety relief. This has led to its abuse by some healthcare workers, especially anesthesiologists and surgeons who have easy access to it. But in 2013, fentanyl became the fountainhead of the third wave of the opioid crisis, which had begun in 1999 with a rise in prescription opioid overdose deaths and continued in 2010 with a second wave caused by heroin overdoses.

Deaths from fentanyl were not new in 2013. Heroin and cocaine had been adulterated with fentanyl before, causing limited outbreaks of overdose deaths. Clandestine labs were shut down, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the United States limited access to certain fentanyl precursors. Around 2013, however, the dam burst. Fentanyl-laced heroin and cocaine became more and more available, as well as counterfeit opioid pills made to resemble Xanax and OxyContin but containing the much more potent fentanyl.

A clampdown by China in 2019 on the illicit manufacturing of the drug changed the production landscape but not the outcome: chemical precursors used in the synthesis of fentanyl and of other legal pharmaceuticals are now made in China and shipped to Mexico, where powerful drug cartels recruit chemistry students and graduates from local universities to finish the synthesis of fentanyl, before moving the product across the border. (As an aside, a 2018 review article points out that most cases of fentanyl misuse in North America and Eastern Europe implicate illicitly manufactured fentanyl, whereas a substantial percentage of abused fentanyl in Western Europe and Australia comes from legal fentanyl made for medical use being diverted.)

Accidental deaths from fentanyl often arise because the person did not know they were consuming the powerful opioid. Early studies showed fentanyl to be roughly 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, meaning that a much lower dose of fentanyl is needed to create the same response. Fentanyl represents a danger not just to recreational drug users, whose supply may have been surreptitiously laced with the synthetic opioid, but also to teenagers with anxiety and/or depression. Sixteen-year-old Cooper Davis from Shawnee, Kansas took half of a pill said to contain oxycodone, a pill he got from a drug dealer he found through Snapchat, and died from accidentally overdosing on its fentanyl. His mother pushed back against the use of this word, overdose. “Curious teenagers [with anxiety and depression] decide to self-medicate and not bother their parents,” she told the authors of a paper on fentanyl poisoning. “There is a stigma when we say ‘overdose,’ and the public thinks, not my family, not my kid. People aren’t listening if we call it an overdose. Let’s call it poisoning.”

These tragedies are now more common, with deaths from accidental overdoses or poisonings skyrocketing in recent years. And it’s not just from fentanyl. Minor players include similar molecules which were developed over the decades to create better anesthetic agents but were put aside due to undesirable side effects. A molecule like carfentanyl, which looks like fentanyl but has a specific chemical group added to it, was synthesized back in 1974 to be used in large animals as an anesthetic. It is 100 times as potent as fentanyl and has made its way into the heroin supply in the United States. To this long list of fentanyl analogs, we can add synthetic opioids not based on the fentanyl backbone, with unremarkable names like U-47700 and AH-7921.

Given the clear hazard posed by potent opioids like fentanyl, it’s no wonder that many first responders are afraid to be anywhere near them. This fear, though, is misplaced and can have dire consequences for the people in need of medical attention.

Touching a raw nerve

It started in Montreal. In April 2013, police conducted seven raids around Montreal and seized drug-making equipment and synthetic drugs, including a fentanyl derivative called desmethyl fentanyl. The clandestine labs making these drugs contained many chemicals, and the Montreal Gazette reported at the time that four police officers became ill from handling some of these drugs. One was hospitalized with heart problems, while three other cops, who were wearing masks and gloves, developed rashes on their arms. The link between touching fentanyl and getting sick was born.

But what really cemented the fear that merely touching fentanyl or one of its analogs causes instant harm was a case in Ohio four years later. A man who had just been released from jail on bond was driving and was pulled over by a police officer, who was joined by Chris Green, a local off-duty cop who happened to be nearby. The two officers found drugs in the car and the man admitted that the powder in his vehicle might include fentanyl. Green noticed some powder on his shirt and brushed it off with his naked hand.

An hour or so later, Green was sweaty, barely coherent, and not feeling well. He was taken to the hospital, where he was treated for an overdose. The man he had arrested was charged with drug trafficking and possession, yes, but also with assault on a peace officer because he had exposed Green to fentanyl. The attorney general for Ohio released a statement to the press during sentencing which would echo for years to come: “Fentanyl is so dangerous,” he said, “that even the slightest exposure can be deadly.” The news media was quick to repeat this memorable quote.

The belief that simply touching fentanyl will cause physical harm is very common among law enforcement officers. It is reinforced by media coverage, which often repeats this presumption with no pushback. Cops who survive their encounter with unknown white powders will tell journalists that “something as simple as the wind could expose you” or “I almost died.

So, are there any reported cases of harm caused by touching fentanyl?

“No.” The man who gave me this unambiguous answer is Dr. Ryan Marino. He is a medical toxicologist and an associate professor at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. He is also one of a handful of experts frequently pushing back against opioid myths through the website WTFentanyl. His stance on this issue is backed up by the American College of Medical Toxicology (ACMT), which deems the risk to emergency responders as “extremely low,” and is echoed in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, in which rescue specialist Simon Taxel reminds us that this position is unanimously agreed upon by physicians and toxicologists. “If there was a real hazard,” Taxel writes, “it would stand to reason that the people who produce fentanyl, distribute it, or use it would suffer similar exposures. This is simply not happening.” Same with carfentanyl, the extremely potent synthetic opioid. “It’s more potent,” told Dr. Joshua Radke, an ER doctor, to Emergency Medicine News, “but it’s not magically more dangerous.”

You may be skeptical if you know that fentanyl patches exist, in which the opioid is allowed to seep through the skin and provide relief to patients dealing with chronic pain. But these transdermal patches were the fruit of significant investments to devise a technology that would allow fentanyl to be absorbed through the skin. Even with this patented delivery system, a patient will start to benefit from the fentanyl only three to 13 hours later. The effect is far from instantaneous. In fact, you can witness Chad Sabora on Facebook showing that a heroin powder tests positive for fentanyl and then holding it in his left hand for an extended period of time. “I’m experiencing no signs of toxicity, no overdose symptoms, nothing whatsoever,” he calmly states. “I don’t know what else to do.”

But what about the danger of accidentally inhaling fentanyl while conducting a drug bust? Reassuringly, the drug and its analogs are not easily airborne, with the ACMT referring to this hypothetical situation as “exceptional circumstances.” There would need to be large quantities aerosolized and breathed in for hours to get a meaningful amount in the bloodstream. The closest thing might have been the Moscow theatre hostage crisis of 2022, in which Chechen terrorists occupied a theatre. The Russian Federation responded by pumping in a gas that killed 129 of the more than 800 hostages, as well as at least 33 terrorists. The Russian government did not initially reveal the composition of the gas. An analysis by a British laboratory of the clothing worn by two British survivors and the urine from a third revealed the presence of carfentanyl and remifentanil. Even if those were indeed the gases used to subdue the terrorists, it is clear that this situation bears little resemblance to first responders arriving at the scene of a fentanyl overdose, or even to police officers raiding a fentanyl laboratory.

First responders who believe they are overdosing on fentanyl from simply touching it in fact exhibit the exact opposite of the symptoms we would expect. While fentanyl makes you euphoric and slows down your breathing, cops start breathing faster, sweat a lot, and become anxious. “I don’t want to discredit anyone or say they’re faking,” says Dr. Marino. “I do think people are having a true medical emergency when this happens. The symptoms seem most consistent with a panic attack or anxiety or a fear reaction.” Some will claim they had to administer naloxone (trade name Narcan), which can reverse an opioid overdose, in order to save their life. But if you are conscious enough to self-administer naloxone, you’re not overdosing on opioids. You would have lost consciousness and barely been breathing.

This panic over accidentally touching fentanyl is causing actual harm. “I have seen this play out,” Dr. Marino tells me, “People are scared to resuscitate an overdosing person, because they’re worried about getting close to them.” Police departments spend unnecessary money on hazmat suits and special “fentanyl-resistant gloves.” Regular disposable nitrile gloves have been tested and are more than suitable; in fact, the human skin is already a pretty good barrier. But because of this dread, people are being charged with imaginary crimes for exposing a cop’s bare skin to fentanyl, and a coalition of attorneys general urged President Joe Biden to classify fentanyl, one of the most frequently used drugs in medicine, as a “weapon of mass destruction.” Fear spreads while science crawls.

If someone looks like they are overdosing on an opioid like fentanyl, the best thing to do after calling emergency medical services is to administer naloxone, which competitively binds to the same receptors as opioids do without activating them. Naloxone nasal spray is available without a prescription at most Canadian pharmacies and many American drugstores. Naloxone can take a few minutes to kick in and more than one dose may be needed. Also, its effect wears off after 20 to 90 minutes, making medical attention necessary regardless. Naloxone will not cause harm, even in someone who is not actually overdosing on an opioid, except in one situation: if the person has been using opioids daily for a long time and is dependent on them, receiving naloxone will cause drug withdrawal symptoms. “But it’s definitely better than the alternative being death,” Dr. Marino told me.

And if you are a first responder and your partner has a panic attack after accidentally touching a white powder at the scene, having them seek medical attention may be necessary, but simply calming them down can work wonders. “I think there was one in Jacksonville a couple of months ago,” Dr. Marino said, “where he had his partner sit down and slow his breathing down. That would be productive rather than just giving Narcan over and over again and adding to the panic.”

Blue Bloods may have fueled the fear over accidental fentanyl poisoning, but another cop show took a different approach. On an episode of Will Trent, a law enforcement officer starts panicking after believing he’s touched fentanyl. The show’s protagonist, Will Trent, replies, unphased: “Pretty sure that’s laundry detergent. Just wash your hands. Either way, you’ll be fine.” We need more scientifically accurate representations like this one.

Take-home message:
- There are no verified cases of poisoning from a casual fentanyl exposure
- First responders who accidentally touch what they believe to be fentanyl and start hyperventilating exhibit symptoms that are the exact opposite of what fentanyl poisoning would look like. Their symptoms are more consistent with a panic attack
- The myth that simply touching fentanyl can kill you causes harm: it delays first responders from helping people who are overdosing, it drives cops to buy unnecessary and expensive protective equipment, and it leads to people receiving harsher sentences for the imaginary crime of exposing a cop to fentanyl


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