Earlier this week, city officials announced a crackdown on the opioid epidemic after a highly dangerous opioid emerged for the first time in Houston.
The substance was originally thought to be methamphetamine when first responders tested it in the field on June 7, but the Houston Forensic Science Center determined the suspicious powder was, in fact, carfentanil, an extremely lethal form of fentanyl primarily used as a tranquilizer for elephants and other large animals.
According to Warren Samms, Ph.D., director of toxicology and chemistry at the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, carfentanil “is quite possibly one of the strongest medications out there.” It only takes 2 milligrams of fentanyl to be lethal and less than 1 milligram of carfentanil—an amount virtually undetectable by the naked eye—to have fatal side effects.
To put it into perspective, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, whereas carfentanil is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. It’s also cheaper to produce.
“Chemists found that it’s very cheap to clandestinely make fentanyl. You take two or three ingredients, mix them together and now you’ve got several pounds of extremely potent opioids,” Samms said. “This started being mixed into the heroin supply in some areas or sold outright as powder bricks of fentanyl elsewhere.”
When fentanyl, carfentanil or any other fentanyl analog enters the bloodstream, they bind to opioid receptors, which are responsible for modulating pain. These drugs can cause itchiness, sedation, nausea and confusion, but the most life-threatening side effect is respiratory depression, Samms said.
“Your normal respiration rate, 12–20 breaths per minute, can drop very much lower to the point where you worry that the body isn’t getting enough oxygen,” Samms said. “That’s what we have to worry about if somebody gets exposed.”
Given carfentanil and other fentanyl analogs’ potency, stricter handling protocols are necessary. People in the lab are required to wear personal protective equipment, gloves and masks around powdered substances, which are handled in fume hoods to prevent exposure.
In addition, the lab carries an opioid antagonist, called naloxone or Narcan, which is also used by emergency room physicians and paramedics to reverse the respiratory depression.
During a press conference on Tuesday, June 27, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo stated that his department will be implementing safety measures for handling illicit substances, as well. For instance, personnel will wear thicker, more protective gloves and masks to prevent them from accidentally inhaling substances; personnel in the crime lab will be required to wear double layers of gloves; and officers will carry Narcan.
“There really should be no reason for officers and first responders to risk their lives by touching this stuff and not being safe,” Acevedo said. “I want, more than anything else, our family members, including the public, to go home to their families at night. If you’re a member of the public, by not taking these illegal drugs that more and more frequently have this deadly substance in it. And for our first responders by not taking any chances.”
According to county officials, there have been 26 cases of fentanyl-related deaths in Harris County within the past 18 months. While this is the first time the city of Houston has reported carfentanil in the community, the drug itself is not new. Last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency issued a nationwide public warning about the health and safety issues of carfentanil.
The emergence of carfentanil, Samms said, is indicative of “a continuing whack-a-mole of fentanyl analogs” and part of a much larger problem.
“The problem is not just carfentanil,” Samms added. “We have these classifications of … designer drugs, and they change with such frequency that it’s literally a game of whack-a-mole: You identify what this one is, you identify what it does to the body, you put legislative controls in place to try and dissuade people from using it. By the time that machinery gets going, you never see it again, something new comes out.”
WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY: Operation To Help Young Military Veterans Adjust To Everyday Life https://t.co/OnFRQbh1UC via @CBSNewYork
#Immunotherapy has shown remarkable success, but it doesn’t work for everyone and results can vary.That’s why our researchers are conducting #clinicaltrials that combine immunotherapy with other therapies: https://t.co/klJw9jdvG8 #endcancer
@thadroher Thank you, Thad. We are grateful for your support.
Bikers honor Vets: ‘Run for the Wall’ stopping in Longview, TX https://t.co/miAB7a2A9b via @KLTV7
U.S. Department of Veterans AffairsVeteransAffairs
Today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Marine Corps Veteran Brad Pesek. Brad served for 20 years and made multiple deployments during Operation Iraqi Freedom.Born in Saint Louis, Missouri, Brad enlisted with the United States Marine Corps in June 1998. He attended boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California and infantry training at Camp Pendleton, California.After completing his training, Brad was assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. There, Brad was deployed twice to Okinawa, Japan as part of the Unit Deployment Program.Following his time at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Brad was assigned to the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton, California. There, he served as a Marine combat instructor and reached the rank of sergeant.After his time serving as an instructor at Camp Pendleton, Brad was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, where he served as a squad leader, machine gun section leader, mortar section leader, and platoon sergeant. During his time with 3/5, Brad was deployed twice to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, once in January 2006 and once in September 2007.Following his time with 3/5, Brad returned to the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton for a second tour as a Marine Combat Instructor. There, Brad was assigned to the Infantry Squad Leader Course, where he served as a squad instructor, assistant chief instructor, and later chief instructor. By December 2010, Brad had earned the rank of gunnery sergeant.Upon completing his tour as a Marine combat instructor, Brad was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. There, he served as a weapons platoon sergeant and company gunnery sergeant. During this time, Brad deployed twice in support of the Unit Deployment Program, serving in Darwin, Australia in 2012 for the first Marine Rotational Force-Darwin and in Okinawa, Japan in 2013.Following his time with 2/3, Brad began working as the assistant training chief for the 1st Marines, G-3 Training Section at Camp Pendleton, California. In January 2015, Brad was promoted to first sergeant and assigned as company first sergeant of the 1st Marine Raider Support Battalion.Brad retired from the Marine Corps in February 2019 after 20 years of service. Throughout his long service, Brad earned the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat Distinguishing Device, the Combat Action Ribbon, and the Meritorious Service Medal.Thank you for your service, Brad!
University of Houston@UHouston
RT @FrontierFiesta: 📸LIVE right now at #FrontierFiesta! https://t.co/PwwxUeSu3V
Today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Marine Corps Veteran Brad Pesek. Brad served for 20 years and made multiple #OIF deployments https://t.co/JDJk73aIjb
University of Houston@UHouston
RT @MarchMadnessTV: Houston is on a mission to make the city proud.Kelvin Sampson has fostered a family atmosphere all around @UHCougarMB…
See how Melanie McNeal stays fit in this week's healthy habits post. https://t.co/YDURUq6Ii5 #healthy #habits
Baylor College of MedicineBaylorCollegeOfMedicine
For decades, the link between education and healthcare has been the driving concept behind development of programs to improve community health at Baylor College of Medicine. Learn more about our initiatives: https://bit.ly/2t4NynV #education #community
U.S. Department of Veterans AffairsVeteransAffairs
Happy Birthday, Frank!
Families with children of all abilities are invited to the annual Texas Children’s West Campus Family Fun Run on Saturday, April 6. Register your family at https://t.co/kj6xpuWTSJ
“People who carry hereditary mutations do not necessarily get cancer, but their risk of developing the disease at some point during their lifetime is higher than average,” says our @KarenLuMD.How we help those with genetic risk of #cancer: https://t.co/W6Rf3WPl9r #endcancer
MD Anderson Cancer CenterMDAnderson
"I was really worried about the recovery," recalls Bridgette Fleming, who underwent laparoscopic colon resection in late March 2018 to treat her colon cancer. "But I was surprised that even after a major abdominal surgery, I only had to use the pain pump twice a day for a few days."Here's how our Enhanced Recovery Program is helping patients like Bridgette rebound faster after surgery. #endcancer
A candlelight vigil was held March 20 commemorating the 50 lives lost in the New Zealand mosque attacks.On March 27, Rice will host an Islamophobia teach-in all day in solidarity with the Muslim community: https://t.co/ugA11IDcGz https://t.co/8siFEZshmc