DOJ: Almost 60,000 Drug Overdose Deaths in 2016; ‘Largest Annual Increase in American History’

By Susan Jones | June 7, 2017 | 6:32 AM EDT

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that mimics the effects of morphine in the human body, but has potency 50–100 times that of morphine. Due to the high potency and availability of fentanyl, both transnational and domestic criminal organizations are increasingly using it an adulterant in heroin and other controlled substances. (Photo from DEA publication)

(CNSNews.com) – “For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses now are the leading cause of death,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told employees of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Tuesday.

“On an average day, 90 Americans will die from an opioid-related overdose.  About four people will overdose and die while we sit here this morning,” Rosenstein said.

Outlining the “horrifying surge in drug overdoses,” Rosenstein noted that in 2015, more than 52,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses, 33,000 of them from heroin, fentanyl and other opioids.

“The preliminary numbers for 2016 show an increase to almost 60,000 deaths. That will be the largest annual increase in American history,” Rosenstein said.

And the opioid crisis is posing new dangers to law enforcement and other first responders, he warned:

Fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more deadly than heroin. Just 2 milligrams – the equivalent of a few grains of table salt – an amount that can fit on the tip of your finger – can be lethal. 

Fentanyl exposure can injure or kill innocent law enforcement officers and other first responders. Inhaling just a few airborne particles could be fatal. Our police officers and first responders face this danger every day.

This is not a hypothetical problem. Law enforcement officers have already suffered exposures to fentanyl in New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut…Just a few weeks ago, a police officer in East Liverpool, Ohio nearly died from exposure to an extremely potent opioid, most likely a fentanyl-related compound. The officer had pulled over a car and noticed an unidentified white powder in the vehicle. The officer took precautions by putting on gloves and a mask for personal protection.  

When the officer returned to the police station, another officer pointed out that he had powder on his shirt.  Instinctively, he brushed off the powder while not wearing gloves.  About an hour later, he collapsed. That officer had to be treated with four doses of naloxone.  Luckily, he survived and is recovering. 

Three weeks ago, a sheriff’s deputy in my home state of Maryland responded to an overdose scene. He was exposed to opioids and needed a dose of Narcan to reverse the effects.

The spread of fentanyl means that any encounter a law enforcement officer has with an unidentified white powder could be fatal.

Only a few grains of fentanyl, the amount shown here, is enough to kill a grown man who touches it, inhales it, or ingests it.

The DEA this week released a video message to law enforcement nationwide about the dangers of coming into contact with fentanyl.

Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg is cautioning police not to field test any substance they suspect may contain fentanyl. Police dogs also are vulnerable.

 “Something that looks like heroin could be pure fentanyl—assume the worst,” he said. “Don’t touch these substances or their wrappings without the proper personal protective equipment.”

The DEA has just issued guidelines for proper handling of fentanyl.

In addition to wearing gloves, face masks, eye protection and other protective gear, DEA says Naloxone (the opioid antidote) should be readily available for administration.    

First responders should not eat, drink or smoke in places where fentanyl is suspected to be present.

Any opened mail and shipping materials located at the scene of an overdose with a return address from China could also indicate the presence of fentanyl.

And DEA says it is possible that fentanyl residue could be present on items of nondrug evidence such as currency, money counters, cellular telephones, or drug paraphernalia which could create an additional vulnerability to law enforcement.