Texas Deputies Are Getting Equipped To Fight Opioid Exposure

By Keri Blakinger 07/28/17

The Harris County Sheriff's Office are taking every precaution to protect their officers from synthetic opioids.

a texas police man standing near his car.

The largest sheriff’s office in Texas announced a decision this week to equip deputies with naloxone—because of concerns that officers could overdose when seizing drugs. 

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office—which serves the greater Houston area—is handing out the overdose-reversing drug, protective gloves and respirators to its deputies to “protect them from potentially deadly synthetic opioids that are becoming more common on Harris County streets,” according to a press release. 

“We are committed to doing everything within our power to protect the brave law enforcement officers who are fighting to keep our communities safe from these dangerous drugs,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a statement. 

“When fentanyl and carfentanil began showing up in Harris County, we knew we had to quickly distribute the antidote and protective gear to our deputies, in case they encounter these drugs in the field. Deputies will also be able to administer the antidote to Harris County residents they encounter, who may have been exposed.”

But it’s not clear how dangerous such exposures could really be, unless deputies are accidentally ingesting the drugs. Despite the viral story about Ohio cop Chris Green who overdosed after brushing fentanyl off his clothes, experts say that’s not really possible.

“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,” Jeremy Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, wrote in Slate earlier this year. “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.”

Although it is true that such potent drugs can be absorbed through the skin, the uptake isn’t quick enough to spark an overdose, toxicology experts told Slate

Even so, in 2016 the DEA issued a release warning cops about the possibility of dying from fentanyl—even when it’s just absorbed through the skin.

“It is 40 to 50 times stronger than street-level heroin. A very small amount ingested, or absorbed through your skin, can kill you,” the DEA’s Acting Deputy Administrator Jack Riley said in a June 2016 video released on the heels of another suspected officer overdose, this time in New Jersey.

“Don’t field test it in your car, or on the street, or take it back to the office. Transport it directly to a laboratory, where it can be safely handled and tested.”

In addition to handing out 200-plus doses of naloxone, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office is also banning the use of roadside field tests for suspected illicit drugs. Although the tests have long been a source of controversy for their notorious tendency to spit out false positives, the sheriff’s office is shying away from them “because of the dangers of possible exposure to fentanyl and carfentanil.”

The testing announcement came earlier this month, when the sheriff’s office joined forces with the Houston Police Department and the Harris County District Attorney’s office to address the policy change in a press conference.

"It's critical for the first responders and the public we serve," Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said at the time, according to the Houston Chronicle. "Substances like fentanyl and carfentanil have changed the entire dynamic. We can't take the chance of losing a first responder or a member of the community because we failed to place safety above process."

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.