The synthetic opioid crisis has catapulted in recent years with the expansion of opioids and their effects on human health significantly magnified. Synthetic opioids are man-made drugs that replicate the effects of a natural opioid. These engineered opioids are designed to reduce pain and create a euphoric reaction, thus their appeal to drug abusers. As the opioid crisis has expanded, the list and dangers have both grown, with new and extremely hazardous synthetic opioids such as carfentanil being used in the illicit drug market.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States is under a massive opioid crisis that is sweeping the nation. This horrible epidemic of synthetic opioid drug abuse has killed an estimated 42,000 people in 2016. The dangers are not limited to drug users, however. Health workers and emergency responders are also at risk of exposure to these hazardous synthetic opioids found on the job. The DEA has even placed public wide warnings on the health and safety risks of carfentanil and exposure to carfentanil as this synthetic opioid is known to be extremely hazardous to public health and those exposed to the opioid on the job.
What is Carfentanil & It’s Effects
Carfentanil is an extremely powerful analog of fentanyl, that contains the potency of fentanyl magnified by 100. Due to its extreme strength and level of danger, carfentanil is not approved for use in humans in any form. One of the main uses of carfentanil is to act as an elephant tranquilizing drug.
Fun fact: An elephant weighs close to 15,000-pounds, an estimated 75 times that of a 200-pound adult male. To tranquilize an elephant, it will only require a small dose of 10 mg of carfentanil to complete this task.
Carfentanil was first synthesized by Janssen Pharmaceutical’s team of chemist in 1974. It has since become incorporated into the synthetic opioid drug market for illicit drug use. Carfentanil has more recently been found in cutting heroin and even in fentanyl sold illicitly. Law enforcement and emergency responders have warned that illicitly produced and sold carfentanil looks similar to other drugs found on the street such as cocaine and heroin, due to its white, odorless appearance.
Carfentanil Effects to Humans
Fentanyl and its analogs – carfentanil – can enter into the body through a multitude of entries including inhalation, ingestion, or intravenous or intramuscular injection. Upon exposure to carfentanil through any of these passageways, the human body and the brain will begin experiencing immediate effects. Carfentanil instantly binds to opioid receptors in your brain, which will begin overtaking the neural chemistry, thus leading to overdose symptoms not far after. This synthetic opioid will also impact receptors that control breathing, which is why this synthetic opioid is typically associated with irregular breathing. Included in the list of effects and symptoms created by carfentanil include:
- Stomach problems
- Respiratory issues
- Slowed depressed breathing
- Pinpoint pupils
- Clammy skin
What’s the Difference Between Fentanyl and Carfentanil
Determining the differences between the synthetic opioids fentanyl and carfentanil can be challenging to determine to the illicit drug user and even for first responders and hazmat. The key characteristics of each of these synthetic opioids includes the following:
The differences between fentanyl and carfentanil for one, is the potency of both. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that fentanyl is similar to morphine but is about 50 to 100 times stronger than that of morphine. Whereas carfentanil is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times stronger than morphine.
Fentanyl is often formed as a powder – usually white in color – and can often be combined with other illicit drugs including heroin, cocaine, and crack. Recently, fentanyl is being constructed to look like pills such as prescription pills (OxyContin and Percocet). Carfentanil looks very similar to that of fentanyl – as it too is a white powdery substance that looks like cocaine or heroin.
Fentanyl, specifically illicit fentanyl is a much more hazardous compound than everyday pharmaceutical opioids. Detecting fentanyl can be difficult due to the fact that this synthetic opioid is often hard to see, smell, or even taste! Thus, the hazard is extremely heightened as your senses are unoptimizable in conjunction with this opioid. Carfentanil, on the other hand, contains extreme levels of risk, even more so than fentanyl! It only requires a very small dosage of carfentanil – the size of a grain of salt – is enough to kill a human.
Synthetic Opioids Potency Hazards to Humans
Synthetic opioids have gained an increased demand as illicit drug users have turned to this less expensive alternative. The increased use of synthetic opioids can be associated with a sharp rise in overdoses and deaths in the United States. Not to mention synthetic opioids present a heightened risk to emergency workers and first responders. Responders are more likely to encounter illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids when on calls and therefore the risk to their health from exposure is severe. Exposure to some hazardous synthetic opioids can result in rapid onset of potentially life-threatening respiratory depression. As the risks have increased, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) has amped up their protocols in an effort to protect our first responders from the hazards presented by synthetic opioids.
Hazmat and First Responders Carfentanil Protection
Fentanyl and carfentanil are on the rise, and with more and more clandestine laboratories producing these synthetic opioids and the overall increase in the distribution of these opioids, the need for protocol to first responders and hazmat is almost required. The DEA has outlined an extensive guide on how a first responder should handle a situation involving synthetic opioids and what protective equipment is necessary in this circumstance. The equipment necessary for first responders and hazmat include the following:
- Naloxone (Narcan): Naloxone is an antidote specifically designed for opioid overdoses, including fentanyl and its analogues – such as carfentanil. If someone is experiencing a synthetic opioid overdose, by properly administering this antidote it can restore normal breathing and consciousness in the individual. Depending on the synthetic opioid (fentanyl, carfentanil) several doses of Narcan will need to be administered – usually every 2 to 3 minutes until breathing is restored. First responders should be supplied with this antidote on all occasions.
- Nitrile Gloves: Nitrile gloves are the appropriate protection to wear on your hands when handling and sampling any suspected drugs including fentanyl and other potent synthetic opioids. Having sets of nitrile gloves “on hand” during crime scene investigating is critical, particularly dark colored gloves that show white powder residue left behind from fentanyl and carfentanil.
- Respiratory Protection: Respiratory protection with an air-purifying respirator is needed on hand for first responders and hazmat workers. Air-respirators come in different variations including half and full-face protection. Synthetic opioids can become airborne and inhaled through nose, mouth, and skin leading to potential overdose and even death. Therefore, having an effective air-purifying respirator to neutralize synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil is very important for first responder’s health.
- Decontamination Gear: Decontamination of carfentanil is no easy feat, as the potency is so magnified that a stronger solution is necessary for complete decontamination of carfentanil. Carfentanil is in the same chemical family as fentanyl but contains a more complex chemistry. Additionally, carfentanil contains an extra carboxyl group and this makes this synthetic opioid more vulnerable to react with the metal oxides of FAST-ACT. FAST-ACT offers a level protection that has never been seen before. This decontamination line utilizes a patented earth mineral technology that is highly reactive against a broad spectrum of chemicals including chemical warfare agents. Once the FAST-ACT products are released/ applied, the threat level will immediately be reduced.
Carfentanil and other fentanyl analogues can have a significant impact on health of illicit drug users and emergency/first responders who come into contact with this elephant tranquilizer drug. By carefully preparing for exposure to these synthetic opioids and having proper protocol to follow can help to ensure the limitation of incidents occurring to our first responders on the scene of crimes involving these synthetic opioids.