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Opioid epidemic’s hidden hazard: SWAT officers treated for fentanyl exposure during drug raid

(Hartford Police Department)

Amid the nation’s deadly and unrelenting opioid epidemic, U.S. law enforcement officers are shouldering an increasingly heavy burden — battling a booming drug market and responding to an endless string of narcotics-related calls while attempting to protect themselves from exposure to the lethal substances.

Of particular concern is the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl, the subject of numerous alerts and advisories from the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has warned the nation’s policing community “to exercise extreme caution.”

“Fentanyl, up to 50 times more potent than heroin, is extremely dangerous to law enforcement and anyone else who may come into contact with it,” the agency advised. “As a result, it represents an unusual hazard for law enforcement.”

Those fears were realized Tuesday in Hartford, Conn., when 11 SWAT officers were exposed to fentanyl and heroin after raw drug powder became airborne during a bust in which police seized 50,000 bags of processed heroin as well as 350 grams of raw narcotics and two guns.

Deputy Chief Brian Foley of the Hartford Police Department said that when the officers raided a residence that evening, suspects were in the process of packaging the drugs for street sales. The powder may have blown into the air as the tactical team tossed a flash-bang grenade, or the suspects may have swept it from the table in a panic, Foley said.

Either way, he said, officers had to move through a “cloud of dust in the air” during the raid.

Afterwards, several officers experienced lightheadedness, nausea, sore throats and headaches; as a precaution, the deputy chief said, the entire team was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

Foley said the SWAT officers were fine and expected to return to their normal duties Wednesday.

“This is something we’ve expected to encounter,” he said. “We talked about it and trained for it. It’s an inherent risk of doing business.”

Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said anxiety over exposure to hazardous materials is not new.

“It’s been a focal point of concern in the law enforcement community for decades,” Pasco said. “The granddaddy of all problems — being exposed to meth labs.”

Now, Pasco said, it’s heroin and fentanyl busts that are potentially life-threatening.

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The incident in Connecticut illustrates the dangers facing police officers as opioid abuse continues to claims victims across the country.

Authorities have expressed particular concerns about fentanyl, a synthetic, short-acting and incredibly potent drug often that is often mixed with heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The DEA said in a recent news release that it “is concerned about law enforcement coming in contact with fentanyl on the streets during the course of enforcement, such as a buy-walk, or buy-bust operation.

“Just touching fentanyl or accidentally inhaling the substance during enforcement activity or field testing the substance can result in absorption through the skin, and that is one of the biggest dangers with fentanyl. The onset of adverse health effects, such as disorientation, coughing, sedation, respiratory distress or cardiac arrest is very rapid and profound, usually occurring within minutes of exposure.”

The DEA issued an alert last year identifying fentanyl “as a threat to public health and safety.”

In June, it sounded the alarm again, creating a “roll call” video to warn law enforcement agencies nationwide “about the dangers of improperly handling fentanyl and its deadly consequences.”

“A very small amount ingested, or absorbed through your skin, can kill you,” said Jack Riley, the DEA’s acting deputy administrator.

The Drug Enforcement Administration warns people about the dangers of Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be 40 to 50 times stronger than heroin. (Video: Drug Enforcement Administration)

In 2015, two sheriff’s detectives in Atlantic County, N.J., were rushed to a hospital after exposure to a powdery substance that turned out to be cocaine and heroin combined with fentanyl.

One of them, Detective Dan Kallen, said in the DEA’s video that they found a bag of powder; when they sealed the bag, “a bunch of it poofed up into the air, right into our face, and we ended up inhaling it.”

“I felt like my body was shutting down,” Detective Eric Price said. “… I thought that was it. I thought I was dying. That’s what my body felt like.”

“Couldn’t breathe,” Kallen added. “Very disoriented.”

Kallen said that “it was just a very minuscule amount; and that’s the scary thing about it.”

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“Law enforcement officers do carry a bigger burden than ever — we are fighting to protect the American public from poisons that bring death and destruction to our communities — but we are also faced with challenges of educating the public as to the deadly risks of these substances and about the inextricable links between misuse of prescription opioids to heroin and fentanyl use and addiction,” DEA spokesman Russell Baer said in an email.

“The men and women and dedicated public servants that are part of American law enforcement face a number of dangers in the workforce today — among our concerns are protecting ourselves, but more importantly, protecting the American public.”

In 2014, nearly 2 million people abused or were addicted to prescription opioids in the United States; that same year, more than 14,000 people died from overdoses, according to data from the CDC.

This year in Connecticut, 223 people had died from fentanyl overdoses as of June; 119 of those died after overdosing on heroin mixed with fentanyl, according to data from the state medical examiner.

The DEA’s Baer said drug trafficking organizations, particularly those in Mexico, exploited America’s prescription opioid addiction, flooding the market with heroin, a cheaper and more readily available alternative.

Now, traffickers have raised the stakes, pushing fentanyl, an opioid 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the CDC.

Baer said fentanyl is a potent and highly addictive drug that has proven to be lucrative for those who are selling it. Because the drug can be made in secret laboratories, drawing less attention from police, it means a smaller risk with a greater reward, he said.

Whereas a kilogram of heroin might yield several hundred thousand dollars, a kilogram of fentanyl can yield up to $1.3 million to $1.5 million, Baer said.

“They took heroin, which is death, and now they’re adding a substance that’s up to 30 to 50 times more potent than death,” Baer said of fentanyl.

But with these substances showing up in sellers’ stashes, Baer said, they pose “actual and real threats” to law enforcement officers, and the DEA has issued multiple warnings urging officers to be diligent.

Foley, with the Hartford Police Department, said officers in the department have been dealing with heroin for decades, but that fentanyl presents a new challenge. The department carries out about 150 search and seizures per year, but Tuesday was the first time any Hartford officers displayed symptoms of exposure to fentanyl, Foley said.

Although police prepare for such situations, there are only certain precautions officers can take, he said. For instance, when SWAT teams are carrying out raids, wearing breathing apparatuses can interfere with vision — making it more difficult to avoid other dangers that come with the job, he said.

Tuesday night, Foley said, the officers could not avoid some minor drug exposure.

Exposure to these narcotics is “becoming more and more common,” Foley said.

This post has been updated.

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