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Fentanyl might be driving ‘overdose clusters’

During the first weekend in February, at least 14 people fatally overdosed in Cleveland. The next weekend, eight people died the same way in Milwaukee.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls it an “epidemic,” and it’s hard to argue. From 1999 to 2014, the CDC’s data shows drug overdose deaths nearly tripled. Every day, 91 Americans fatally overdose, the CDC reports.

Often, those overdoses seem to occur in groups – as they did in Cleveland and Milwaukee. Why? One possible reason is that some drugs are laced with fentanyl.

Deadly painkiller often shows up in street drugs

Although heroin was present at several of the overdoses in Ohio and Wisconsin, it’s not yet known whether the drug was directly responsible for the deaths. However, heroin and other opioids are certainly responsible for many overdose deaths; more than 33,000 people died from them in 2015, according to the CDC.

Street drugs are often laced with other drugs, either to boost their effects or to make a dealer’s supply last longer. Fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin, sometimes shows up in batches of street drugs.

This has had fatal results. For example, in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, fentanyl was reported to have played a role in the deaths of 86 people last year. In Texas, fentanyl began to show up in counterfeit medications during 2016, causing the Houston Forensic Science Center to issue a warning.

David Fiellin, M.D., a Yale University School of Medicine professor, told CNN that fentanyl’s potency and ability to cause overdoses might explain why many overdoses occur in clusters. “It’s the extent to which these high potency opioids are being distributed within the illicit drug markets,” said Fiellin.

Fentanyl is so powerful that it poses a serious risk to law enforcement on its own. The drug can be easily absorbed into the skin or inhaled. “Fentanyl is extremely dangerous to law enforcement and anyone else who may come into contact with it,” said Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Michele Leonhart in a statement released through the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center.

However, other experts caution against assuming overdose deaths are always related. “We know from historical experience with so-called ‘cancer clusters’ that in many cases the clustering is either the result of confirmation bias, or is simply the result of random chance,” said McGill University professor Nicholas King, Ph.D., in a CNN interview. “That said, in some very specific cases we can identify an underlying cause for multiple opioid overdoses in a short period of time: For example, after the appearance of an illegal drug with unusually high potency,” he added.

Addiction is only the start

Most warnings about drugs revolve around addiction, a deadly disease which ruins careers, education, families and lives. But addiction is really only the first risk of opioid abuse. Unlike prescription medications, there are no regulations or safety procedures in the manufacture of heroin. And it’s impossible to tell if a batch of heroin is deadly until it’s too late.

Drug treatment’s a ladder out. Sovereign Health of Texas provides expert substance abuse care at our El Paso facility. We use effective, evidence-backed methods to treat substance abuse and any underlying issues which may be driving drug use. This approach helps our patients reach both their full potential and the best chance at a lasting recovery. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the Author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for Sovereign Health. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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