Bill would fund fentanyl detectors

Reports of law officers and paramedics in various parts of the country receiving accidental overdoses of fentanyl merely by handling or being near the powerful opioid prompted an U.S. senator from Ohio to introduce legislation to help authorities detect fentanyl on site.

A bill awaiting introduction in the Senate and sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, would provide grant funds for first responder agencies to get handheld devices that can test for the drug without the operator actually having to handle the suspected material.

A police officer from East Liverpool was accidentally exposed to fentanyl during a traffic stop and was revived with four doses of Narcan. Reports said the exposure came when he brushed some of the spilled compound off his shirt with his hand. Two similar reports have come out of Ohio in recent months, including an officer at a Cincinnati veterans hospital and a paramedic in Fairborn.

Marietta Police Chief Rodney Hupp said Thursday he’s not convinced the equipment being offered through the bill is necessary for his department.

“I understand that it’s incredibly powerful, but I also thought when I saw that article (about the East Liverpool police officer) saying that a particle will kill you right now, that’s exaggerated,” Hupp said.

Although exposure to fentanyl by inhaling or ingesting it in some other way can be fatal, a paper authored by the American College of Medical Toxicology says “the risk of clinically significant exposure to emergency responders is extremely low. “

As for absorbing it through a spill on the skin, the college’s paper on the subject says, “it is very unlikely that small, unintentional skin exposures to tablets or powder would cause significant opioid toxicity, and if toxicity were to occur it would not develop rapidly, allowing time for removal.”

Lt. Josh Staats of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office said the general procedure when encountering anything suspected to contain fentanyl in the field is to send it directly to a lab.

“If there’s stuff we think is fentanyl, we don’t even field test it,” he said.

As for the handheld digital analyzers, he said, “It’s cheaper for us to have protective gear.”

The American College of Medical Toxicology paper said nitrile gloves and protective masks are adequate for safe handling of the drug.

The detectors, like portable breath analysis units for alcohol, don’t provide sufficiently exact results for use in court, only probable cause for arrest.

There are several detectors on the market, including TruNarc by Thermo Fisher, which sells for about $21,000. The device comes with software that can be updated, an important factor because of the proliferation of new synthetic drugs, such as cannabis and fentanyl analogues.

All the models use similar technology, which is a laser beam that scatters on impact and creates a molecular verification chart similar to that generated by a mass spectrometer. They all detect a large number of chemicals, ranging from drugs to explosives.

A copy of the bill proposed by Brown, which as yet does not have a number, indicates that $20 million in funding would be attached to the measure.

“Law enforcement officers are on the frontlines of our efforts to combat illegal fentanyl,” said Brown, in a release. “Following our success in securing new screening devices for federal law enforcement agents earlier this year, we need to give Ohio officers the same tools to address Ohio’s opioid epidemic and protect themselves from dangerous drugs like fentanyl.”

At a glance

Senate bill sponsored by Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

¯ Provides grant funding for first responder agencies to purchase handheld devices that can detect, among other compounds, fentanyl.

¯ Intended to make field analysis less risky than traditional field-testing kits.