WASHINGTON — The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Tuesday warned of a new problem presented by the nation's drug abuse epidemic: the threat of law enforcement officers accidentally overdosing.
Officers and paramedics are increasingly coming in contact with potent synthetic opioids that can be dangerous and deadly, a troubling side effect of the United States' opioid crisis.
Even very small amounts of drugs such as carfentanil and fentanyl, which investigators are finding in powder form or laced into other drugs, can be lethal. Although DEA does not keep data quantifying the problem, first responders handling evidence or helping overdose victims are more frequently reporting breathing problems, dizziness and even loss of consciousness, acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said. It is so dire that DEA on Tuesday issued new guidance to officers and emergency responders, urging them to use caution even during routine calls.
"If you don't know what it is, assume there's something in it that will kill you," Rosenberg said.
In Bel Air, Maryland, last month, a deputy called to investigate a suspected overdose became dizzy and overdosed himself. A paramedic who administered him the life-saving overdose antidote Narcan soon started feeling sick as well and sought treatment.
In Ohio, an officer overdosed in a police station after using his bare hand to brush off a trace of white powder left from a drug scene. Even police dogs whose job it is to sniff out narcotics are suffering overdoses after ingesting fentanyl, and some handlers are carrying antidotes to save them.
"They don't know what they're responding to other than someone's in distress," said Jonathan F. Thompson, executive director and CEO of the National Sheriffs' Association. "The key is to be aware and to be observant."
Departments are telling officers to wear protective gloves, masks and eye protection and in some cases bodysuits when collecting the powdery substance, which can coat surfaces and is sometimes unseen.
Rosenberg said the agency hopes to quantify the problem as it helps officers on the front lines of the drug fight.
"We hear about it when we hear about it," he said. "It might be a situation where an officer goes home one night and she doesn't feel good and then it goes away ... and then it doesn't get reported centrally. Of the drug problem overall, he added, "this is an epidemic. Please make no mistake about it."
In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses. More than 33,000 people died from heroin, fentanyl and other opioid drugs. The preliminary numbers for 2016 show an increase to almost 60,000 deaths, which would be the largest annual increase in American history.