The synthetic opioid is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, the prescription painkiller that led to the death earlier this year of the pop star Prince. Fentanyl itself can be up to 50 times more deadly than heroin.
In the past few years, traffickers in illegal drugs increasingly have substituted fentanyl for heroin and other opioids. Now carfentanil is being sold on American streets, either mixed with heroin or pressed into pills that look like prescription drugs. Many users don’t realize that they’re buying carfentanil. And that has deadly consequences.
“Instead of having four or five overdoses in a day, you’re having these 20, 30, 40, maybe even 50 overdoses in a day,” says Tom Synan, who directs the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition Task Force in Southwest Ohio. He’s also the police chief in Newtown, Ohio.
Synan says carfentanil turned up in Cincinnati in July. At times the number of overdoses have overwhelmed first responders.
“Their efforts are truly heroic, to be going from call to call to call,” he says. “One district alone had seen 14 in one shift, so they were nonstop.”
First responders and emergency room workers are being told to wear protective gloves and masks. That’s because carfentanil is so potent it can be dangerous to someone who simply touches or inhales it.
This was devastatingly clear back in 2002, after a hostage rescue operation in Moscow that went wrong. To overpower Chechen terrorists who’d seized control of a theater, Russian Special Forces sprayed a chemical aerosol into the building. More than 100 hostages were overcome and died. Laboratory tests by British investigators later revealed that the aerosol included carfentanil.
In Ohio, Hamilton County Health Commissioner Tim Ingram says it can take hours for the body to metabolize carfentanil, far longer than for other opiods. That means a longer lasting high.