Uncertain Danger

New technology makes testing heroin for fentanyl safer, faster and cheaper

Douglas County issued an urgent public health report Jan. 7 after an unusually large number of heroin overdoses were reported in Roseburg in the span of a few days. The report listed fentanyl as the potential culprit for the uptick. 

“It appears the current ‘heroin’ in our community is particularly potent or may be adulterated with fentanyl,” the press release says. “Also be aware that other drugs, such as methamphetamine, may be adulterated with fentanyl.”

Five days later, Eugene Police Sgt. Dale Dawson responded to a potential heroin overdose in Lane County. According to Dawson, the victim had been homeless and living in his car — and he was already dead by the time Dawson arrived. 

“There was the drug stuff, drug paraphernalia that was there,” Dawson says. “The syringes, the little cookpot that they use. It could have been heroin with fentanyl, but we don’t check that.”

The heroin that caused the overdoses in Douglas County may be completely unrelated to the death Dawson responded to in Eugene, but we’ll never know. Neither EPD nor the Roseburg police field test their confiscated drugs for fentanyl. 

Dawson says this is due to both cost and the safety of the officers in the field doing the tests. 

Recent studies, though, show that the risk of officers’ overdosing on fentanyl from merely touching it or breathing it in is much lower than originally thought. Law enforcement agencies around the country have found ways of getting around the dangers posed by coming into contact with fentanyl in the field. 

Don’t Test Me

In 2016, rumors began to circulate about the lethality of powdered fentanyl. Cops in multiple departments were reportedly overdosing by having it touch their skin, or even just breathing near it. There were cases reported in California, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, among others.

Many law enforcement agencies quit doing in-the-field tests for the sake of officer safety. 

Oregon State Police abandoned field drug tests in 2018, citing the safety of police officers as the main reason, according to a May 2019 story in The Oregonian. While the test kit Oregon officers used didn’t test for fentanyl specifically,  Portland police have similar plans to quit using their field drug tests as well. 

Oregon currently has no reported cases of a police officer getting sick or overdosing after coming into contact with fentanyl.

“If we suspect that it is either meth or heroin and we test it for that and it tests positive, then we’re not going to test it for anything else,” Dawson says. “Once you have a positive for either meth or heroin, you don’t need to test for fentanyl.”

Dawson explains that one of the main reasons police officers test confiscated drugs is for legal reasons; police want to make sure they provide the state with sufficient and accurate evidence. While the field drug tests aren’t as accurate as the Oregon State Police lab and are often unsuitable for court, it’s usually enough to grant officers probable cause to perform a more complete search or send someone to jail. 

But according to Dawson, the legal benefits of quick substance testing do not outweigh the risk of coming into contact with fentanyl.

“It’s a safety hazard for us,” Dawson says. “When it comes to unknown powdered substances, we don’t test for it.”

Dawson says if an officer suspects a substance of containing fentanyl, he might send it to the crime lab in Salem, where it could take weeks — or even months — to get results back.


Ground Zero

As the commander of Fairfield County’s Major Crimes Unit in Ohio, Dennis Lowe is no stranger to fentanyl and its deadly offshoots. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control reported Ohio had the second highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation. 

“In 2017 or so, there became an acute awareness by law enforcement that there was an inherent risk of being inadvertently exposed to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs,” Lowe tells Eugene Weekly. “At that time we kind of had a statewide moratorium that law enforcement would no longer do presumptive field tests on unknown powders or suspected heroin for that very reason.”

But at the end of 2018, Lowe says, more scientific data became available showing that the risk officers face when handling potential fentanyl may have been exaggerated.

“It was really unlikely that the most direct threat in terms of exposure came from inhalation,” Lowe says. “So by putting some procedures in place with respect to personal protective equipment, and with some advances in technology, we were able to greatly reduce the risk to officers conducting those types of field tests. And we do that routinely here now.”

According to the American College of Medical Toxicology: “Fentanyl and its analogs are potent opioid receptor agonists, but the risk of clinically significant exposure to emergency responders is extremely low. To date, we have not seen reports of emergency responders developing signs or symptoms consistent with opioid toxicity from incidental contact with opioids.”

The report continues by saying that when handling potential fentanyl, simple nitrile gloves provide enough protection for the skin, and that a small respirator mask would suffice in the “exceptional circumstance” that drug particles would be in the air. 

Lowe says the officers in his county began using DetectaChem MobileDetect kits, which allow them to test confiscated drugs for multiple different substances, including fentanyl. They’re smaller than a wallet and can connect to an app on a smartphone. 

“The reason that we went to these was because it allowed us to check for trace amounts of those drugs without opening the bags and exposing our officers to greater risk,” Lowe says. “And in terms of cost, it’s the same as the old field kits that we used to use.”

Lowe says most of Ohio now uses these types of field tests, and the added bonus has come in the form of real-time data. He has used data from the tests to locate patterns of drug use in the neighborhoods and counties surrounding Columbus. 

“If we can see a cluster of overdoses occurring in a specific suburb of Columbus and we know the route that those drugs take to get to our community, it almost acts like an early warning system,” Lowe says. “Sort of like the tsunami warning systems that they have out in the Pacific.”

The Pattern

In November 2019, EPD told Eugene Weekly that it hasn’t received any reports of fentanyl being found in Eugene. 

According to data from HIV Alliance, though, in the five-month period between July 1 and Nov. 20, 2019, the needle exchange program distributed 1,002 fentanyl test strips to 334 people. A total of 67 people reported 141 reactive tests, indicating that some people found fentanyl in their drugs multiple times; 25 of the positive tests came from meth, 107 from heroin and nine came from other drugs. 

Dawson says that between March 2018 and Jan. 31, 2019, there were 23 documented uses of Narcan — the opiate-reversing carried by drug officers and paramedics — from the police alone. He’s quick to note that this does not include data from ambulances or nonprofits like CAHOOTS, and that there are no current plans to begin field testing confiscated drugs.  

“Life is all about personal responsibility,” Dawson says. “That’s not really our responsibility. And that’s where personal responsibility comes in. You’re doing heroin and now you want somebody else to tell you whether it’s good heroin or not? There’s no such thing.”

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