One year after a disturbing photo of a couple passed out in their van from a heroin overdose went viral, police in East Liverpool, Ohio, and elsewhere are in danger of overdosing when they respond to suspected drug scenes.
That's because they're encountering two new drugs, much stronger and deadlier than heroin: fentanyl and carfentanil. These substances are so dangerous, a person can die just by touching them or breathing them.
That nearly happened to patrolman Chris Green of the East Liverpool Police Department.
On Friday, he searched the car of two drug suspects. Later, back at the police station, another officer told Green he had white powder on his shirt. Green brushed the powder off his shirt with his bare hand. One hour later he was passed out. It took four doses of Narcan, the opioid overdose antidote, to revive him.
In the case of officer Green, the drug was fentanyl. Although officers wear protective gloves and masks while working drug scenes, Green had come into contact with the drug after he'd removed his gloves. Days after the incident, officer Green was still on bed rest, suffering from a headache, chest pains and fatigue.
Fentanyl is a synthetic version of heroin that is five times as strong. Even deadlier is carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer that is used by veterinarians at zoos. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told CBN News carfentanil is being laced into heroin or sold outright.
"We'll see sometimes in a weekend, one community, where there'll be five, 10, 15 people die," DeWine said.
According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 52,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2015, more than triple the number from 1999.
It takes far less fentanyl and carfentanil than heroin to kill a person. Therefore, police nationwide are backing off on their traditional field testing procedures so the officers themselves don't overdose on tiny amounts of the drugs.
That also goes for evidence examiners and even drug sniffing dogs, too. Just taking a scoop of a fentanyl or carfentanil for testing can cause tiny particles to become airborne and breathed.
Newly developed techniques allow officers to use specially designed swabs to screen for fentanyl or carfentanil.
"Currently, police officers have to handle drugs to test them," Ed Sisco, a research chemist at National Institute of Standards and Technology, told Science Daily "But with these technologies, they can just swab the outside of a bag to test for fentanyl."
If the test comes back positive, they can take extra precautions.