DEA Urges First Responders To Take Precautions To Avoid Accidental Overdose

By Britni de la Cretaz 06/26/17

Accidentally absorbing illegal substances is a major concern for first responders.

a fireman standing in front of two firetrucks.

As more and more first responders come into contact with people affected by opioid misuse, they’re being urged to take precautions when handling opioid-related items.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is urging police officers, firefighters, and paramedics to use care when coming in contact with opioids in order to avoid accidental overdose, WGCU reports. Currently, federal guidelines include asking responders to use gloves, dust masks, safety glasses, paper suits, and shoe covers. 

The DEA’s report for first responders explains that “fentanyl‐related substances are designed to be absorbed into the body by all means,” including via transdermal transmission (through the skin). As a result, they note that accidental exposure by first responders is a real concern. First responders can be exposed to the drugs while executing search warrants, buying drugs during an undercover operation, or while processing evidence. 

If this seems excessive, Dani Moschella of the Delray Beach Police Department says the department tightened regulations after three Broward Sheriff’s Office K-9 dogs were poisoned by fentanyl last year. “Our canine handlers went down to the Coral Springs animal hospital and got training from the veterinarians there about how to inject naloxone—or Narcan—into the dogs, should they exhibit any signs of overdose,” Moschella told WGCU.

The DEA’s report states that “it would only take 2‐3 milligrams of fentanyl to induce respiratory depression, arrest and possibly death,” which is the equivalent of five to seven individual grains of salt. “They make sure they have those gloves on,” Moschella said of first responding officers. “They make sure whenever they test drugs that they do it in a controlled setting—somewhere indoors where there’s no wind or other elements that might stir up the drugs and make them more inhalable.”

While there is no available data on how many first responders have overdosed as a result of being exposed to drugs at a scene, some cases have been reported. In May, a police officer in East Liverpool, Ohio, overdosed after brushing some fentanyl off his uniform. He had worn gloves while searching a car where he encountered the drugs. He returned to the station and said he felt his body shutting down; paramedics gave him naloxone and rushed him to a hospital.

He made a full recovery, but told WFMJ, “Never in a million years did I think I would be in the hospital for something that serious, for overdosing. You sign up for a job, you know is dangerous, you're thinking of guns, robbers, and knives. You're not thinking that a particle of dust or drug killing you.”

Roxanne Franckowski, a chemist with Cayman Chemical Co. in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who works with law enforcement to identify illicit fentanyl, told CNN, "People in the laboratory, they're told all the time about making sure you have your personal protective equipment. But officers, who don't have the chemistry training or the background, they may not think of these things.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.