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Fentanyl Contamination

Award Information

Award #
Funding Category
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)
Original Solicitation

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2018, $500,000)

The illegal use of fentanyl and its analogs (collectively referred to here as “fentanyls”) as enhancing agents to other opioid drugs, such as heroin, is becoming widespread. Fentanyls are relatively easy to obtain, have potencies that are orders of magnitude greater than heroin, and are increasingly being encountered in counterfeit illicit tablets. The tablets and some of the illicit mixtures are being produced in pill milling and tableting operations that are highly contaminated with toxic drugs, leading to injuries to responding officers, emergency medical technicians, forensic scientists, environmental responders, and/or dwelling occupants.

The goals of this project are to enhance the safety of law enforcement, forensic scientists, medical personnel, and environmental responders to crime scenes that may be contaminated with fentanyls, as well as to protect public health. This project includes partners performing related research to safeguard worker and public health from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), and it builds on completed and on-going projects by US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and US Department of Defense (DOD). In doing so, this project will expand on and leverage inter-agency research efforts to assess and control fentanyl exposure to responders and the public.

This project addresses three critical knowledge gaps. First, it is critical to understand the actual exposures of response personnel when bulk fentanyls are stored or processed. This includes ambient concentrations of other toxic materials that responders might be exposed to during law enforcement activities like field sampling, evidence collection, and crime scene processing. This study will evaluate levels of fentanyls and associated toxic materials when illicit opioids are produced and distributed. The results will be directly relevant to responders because the study will measure surface concentrations and air concentrations at breathing zones/heights in simulated crime scene environments with actual fentanyls. While these measurements will utilize classical sampling and analytical techniques, they will also adapt and apply devices NIOSH has developed for other illicit drugs to produce actionable field results. Importantly, all measurement approaches will be verified to reflect levels of fentanyls relevant to response operations, recognizing these levels will change as the response progresses.

Second, the study will investigate the presence, toxicological impact, and exposure risk of fentanyls present on responder personal protective equipment (PPE), surfaces they encounter, evidence they handle, and field samples received by forensic laboratories. The study will characterize surface and airborne hazards associated with materials, and therefore inform the inhalation and dermal exposure potential, allowing proper PPE selection, which is currently a matter of contention in the response community.

Third, this study will reduce such exposure risk by guiding decontamination needs and approaches. While several approaches have been proposed, to date, methods for decontamination of fentanyls have not been systematically evaluated, particularly those directly applicable to the occupational exposure of responders and other personnel.

Date Created: December 11, 2020