Fentanyl Caused 74 Percent of Opioid Overdose Deaths in Massachusetts

By Zachary Siegel 11/09/16

Fentanyl may be responsible for making 2016 the deadliest year on record for the Bay State. 

Fentanyl Caused 74 Percent of Opioid Overdose Deaths in Massachusetts

A shocking 74% of opioid-related overdose deaths that went through a toxicology test in Massachusetts were caused by illicit fentanyl during the third quarter of 2016, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s preliminary tally of opioid-related deaths released on Monday.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid several times stronger than heroin. Federal authorities believe the potent chemical is manufactured in clandestine labs in China and Mexico. The deadly drug is quietly supplanting America’s heroin market. 

“While we continue to see a decline in the number of deaths involving heroin, the data released today are a sobering reminder of why the opioid crisis is so complex and a top public health priority,” the state's Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said in a press release. “This is a crisis that touches every corner of our state, and we will continue our urgent focus expanding treatment access.”

Current estimates of opioid-related deaths for the first nine months of 2016 are higher than the first nine months of 2015. These preliminary data confirm a dark forecast for the Bay State. It looks like 2016 will be the deadliest year on record. 

There was a 43% increase in unintentional opioid overdose deaths between 2013 and 2014. That number continues to climb, as 2014 to 2015 saw a 20% increase. Now, 2016 looks even worse, with the first nine months of this year amounting to 1,475 deaths to 2015’s total of 1,574 deaths. 

The reason for the increase is because fentanyl, manufactured in underground labs, is several orders of magnitude deadlier than heroin. Whereas heroin and other opioids are typically measured in milligrams, fentanyl is measured in micrograms. For some perspective, fentanyl amounting to a few grains of salt can kill a fully grown human being. 

But a lesser-mentioned driver of the opioid crisis is the role drug combination plays in overdose deaths. In the second quarter of 2016, according to DPH, benzodiazepines were present in nearly half of opioid-related overdose deaths that went through a toxicology test. Mixing benzodiazepines, a central nervous system depressant, with powerful opioids is a deadly combination.  

Even more concerning, according to the most recent data, is that while prescriptions issued for opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone decline, the number of overdose deaths continues to rise. 

This means that the opioid epidemic is proving to be a complex public health problem that will require more novel solutions. 

Public health experts argue for increased access to medications like buprenorphine and methadone, along with other harm reduction solutions such as drug consumption rooms and syringe-exchange programs. 

You can peruse the DPH’s full report here

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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.