Can Just Touching Fentanyl Cause An Overdose?

By Zachary Siegel 07/11/17

Medical experts weigh in after a police officer reportedly overdoses from brushing fentanyl off his clothing.

hand reaching out toward the camera.

You probably heard the story about the Ohio police officer who said he overdosed after brushing away illicit fentanyl that somehow landed on his clothes. After all, it spread like wildfire

But what you may have missed were the numerous medical experts, from doctors to forensic toxicologists, suggesting how preposterous such a scenario is. 

Officer Chris Green of East Liverpool Police Department told CBS News that he helped arrest two men on suspected drug charges. Apparently, a white powdery substance was on the floor of their car. 

Then a fellow officer alerted him that white powder was on his sweatshirt. "Yeah, um, as I walked through the door, I was almost pulled back by an alert colleague, another officer, 'what's this white powder'... that's when I reached back and accidentally came in contact," Green said. 

After realizing powder was on his person, according to Green’s account, “I fall backwards and I’m trying, trying to hold on to anything I can grasp.” 

“I was in total shock,” Green told East Liverpool’s local paper. “No way I’m overdosing,’ I thought.”

Dozens of toxicologists actually agree with Green, that there is “no way” he overdosed from touching fentanyl.

“Neither fentanyl nor even its uber-potent cousin carfentanil (two of the most powerful opioids known to humanity) can cause clinically significant effects, let alone near-death experiences, from mere skin exposure,” writes Slate’s Jeremy Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. “If Green’s story is true, it would be the first reported case of an overdose caused solely by unintentional skin contact with an opioid.” 

David Juurlink, the University of Toronto's head of clinical pharmacology and toxicology, told CBC that Green isn’t necessarily lying about the incident. But, he said, "It's really, really difficult to imagine that transient exposure of the skin to fentanyl would cause someone to overdose."

Juurlink could only speculate: "Maybe his finger ended up in his mouth, or who knows? But we do know that fentanyl is absorbed much more easily across mucosal surfaces like the mouth than it is through the skin." 

Green remained unconscious after he was given one dose of naloxone at the station. He was then rushed to the hospital where he received three more doses until finally coming to. If an opioid overdose does not respond to four doses of naloxone, then maybe it's not an opioid overdose at all. 

Illicit fentanyl and its numerous chemical cousins are indeed scary. They’re new(ish) to drug markets and there is much we still don’t know about them. Which makes the officer’s response—scared, panicked—totally reasonable. He’s on the front lines of a deadly drug crisis. Perhaps he suffered an anxiety attack? Who knows. 

But these are questions and scenarios the media failed to ask. Instead, they uncritically picked up the story and ran with it without first asking: is this even possible?

It’s yet another sign media is falling into old, tired patterns: stoking drug hysteria. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.