Unfounded Fears Linger About Accidental Exposure to Fentanyl

By Paul Gaita 06/07/19

Lawmakers have introduced a new bill that perpetuates fears about fentanyl that many physicians consider unfounded.

Person worried about accidental exposure to fentanyl

Though a wealth of information has been made public about the relatively low risk presented by accidental exposure to the synthetic opioid, fentanyl, lawmakers, law enforcement and media outlets continue to issue warnings and even propose legislation to provide safeguards to prevent overdose.

A recent article in Reason cited a bill put forward by a bipartisan group of Congressmen that would allocate federal money to local police for drug screening devices that was spurred in part by concern over exposure to fentanyl. 

It also quoted recent comments from a Toledo, Ohio newspaper and New York State police chief, both of which voiced concern over the alleged dangers presented by "even a minute trace of the drug." Such fears are contrary to countless studies and testimony by medical professionals and health groups, which have stated that casual skin exposure to fentanyl presents little chance of significant harm than any other drugs.

The bill, introduced by Representatives Conor Lamb (D-PA), David Joyce (R-OH) and David Trone (D-MD), would establish a new grant program at the Department of Justice that would assist local law enforcement agencies in securing interdiction devices—portable chemical screening technology—that would help officers determine the presence of fentanyl and other drugs at a crime scene.

"This legislation will increase the safety of our officers and will streamline the substance testing process, providing real-time results to reduce the backlog in the legal system," said Lamb in a statement.

While well-intended, the bill perpetuates fears about fentanyl that many physicians consider unfounded, according to Reason. Coverage in the New York Times noted that while fentanyl and carfentanil are dangerous opioids, the drugs must be deliberately consumed, not touched or inhaled by accident, to present a health risk.

"I would say it's extraordinarily improbable that a first responder would be poisoned by an ultra-potent opioid," said Dr. David Juurlink, a clinical researcher based in Toronto. "I don't say it can't happen. But for it to happen would require extraordinary circumstances, and those would be very hard to achieve."

Despite testimony of that nature, fear about exposure to fentanyl continues to find its way into the public sphere. The Toledo Blade called for immediate passage of Lamb's bill, stating "police, firefighters and other first responders are in jeopardy if they come into contact with even a minute trace of the drug."

And in a February 2019 interview, John Anton, police chief for DeWitt, New York, said on WRVO Public Media that he feared his officers are "getting exposed to fentanyl, getting it on their clothes, bringing it home to their families, getting it on their boots and so on."

As many medical professionals have noted, such fears are largely unfounded.

"I want to tell first responders, 'Look, you're safe,'" said Dr. Jeremy S. Faust, an emergency doctor at Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, in the New York Times coverage. "You can touch these people. You can interact with them. You can go on and do the heroic lifesaving work that you do for anyone else."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.