BOISE -- A warning for those on the front line of the battle against opioids and who rush to scenes where drugs are present. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says first responders could be at risk for an overdose - simply by doing their jobs.
Officers in states mainly in the eastern region of the country have been exposed to extremely dangerous synthetic opioids, prompting the DEA to release a video warning to first responders about the dangerous threat - a troubling problem caused by our nation's growing opioid crisis.
Fortunately, police and paramedics in Ada County tell KTVB none of them have accidentally overdosed when coming into contact with drugs, but the risk is always there.
"It's a constant threat," Boise Police Cpl. Casey Hancuff said. "These are very very high potency drugs."
On Tuesday, the DEA said that officers and emergency responders are increasingly coming in contact with synthetic opioids that can be dangerous and deadly. It's a problem so scary that the agency issued new guidance, urging caution even during routine calls.
"Please don't field test in your car or on the street," the video warned.
"Our advice is: If you don't know what it is, assume the worst," acting administrator of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, said.
Even tiny amounts of drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil can be lethal; investigators are finding these drugs in powder form or laced into other drugs. Experts say fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more deadly than heroin. In a news conference, the Department of Justice said if you ingest or absorb through your skin just two grams - the equivalent of a few grains of salt, the amount that can fit on the tip of your finger - can be lethal.
The DEA says first responders handling evidence and helping overdose victims are more frequently reporting breathing problems, dizziness and even loss of consciousness.
"They're not just ingested through injecting or smoking, but it can actually go through your skin, it's transdermal, it can be inhaled," Cpl. Hancuff said. "We do have Fentanyl here. My guess is that we probably have Carfentanil here too but it's very small."
Hancuff says while there are no incidents of BPD officers being exposed and accidentally overdosing, the department started encountering fentanyl in the area in at least 2014 when the heroin epidemic started to blow up. He believes police have encountered carfentanil in the Pocatello area.
Hancuff says when responding to an overdose scene, officers slow things down and don't rush in unless it's absolutely dire. They work to secure the area and make sure it's safe for paramedics and other emergency responders to step in.
"If we're in an environment where these drugs might exist we want to get into open air, wear protective clothing," Hancuff added. "So we're careful not to expose ourselves to these environments."
He says police are trained to wear gloves, while emergency responders such as paramedics and EMTs have the more protective gear.
"In the event that we were to walk into something where we would need to protect ourselves we carry equipment on all of our ambulances to do so," Ada County Paramedics spokesperson, Hadley Mayes, said.
Paramedics wear gloves and potentially masks and goggles. They also keep Naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, in their ambulances. It is a medication that reverses the effects of an overdose.
Specially trained "Haz Med" paramedics could wear protective barrier suits if they were to encounter these deadly drugs.
"It's something that's not happening yet," Mayes said about first responders overdosing. "Hopefully it doesn't but if it does, we're prepared."
"The chance of it happening is high here. It'll happen eventually. Hopefully it won't be a fatal event ,hopefully it will be something that we can quickly address and help people get through," Hancuff added.
There is concern that Narcan is no match for potent synthetic opioids that continue to get stronger. The acting director of Center for Disease Control and Prevention says usual antidotes may not work and people may need so many doses that the supply runs short.
According to the DEA, fentanyl-related overdoses killed more than 700 people nationwide from late 2013 to early 2015. NBC News reports new numbers show a stunning increase last year, with numbers still rising.
An estimated 91 people die every day in the United States from opioid overdoses, proving that this really is an epidemic.
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