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The F Word: Fentanyl Emerging as a Scourge across Tennessee

MIDDLE TENNESSEE (WKRN) - Danny Schaeffer is in the business of dealing with bad things. Fentanyl is one of them.

Schaeffer is the EMS director in Cheatham County, which is feeling the impact of the synthetic opioid. “We've had three confirmed deaths this year off of fentanyl,” he told News 2 recently. “If a patient still has a needle stuck in their arm, chances are it is fentanyl because we know how deadly it is,” he added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it the third wave of the opioid crisis. This past week, the agency laid out staggering numbers regarding fentanyl-related deaths. Just five years ago, fatal incidents began to double each year. The drug was involved in 4,223 deaths in 2014. That number reached 8,251 in 2015. And in 2016, fentanyl-related deaths grew to 18,335.

Schaeffer says fentanyl deaths in Cheatham County jumped from zero in 2017 to ten in 2018. “Alarming stats. And nothing to be proud of for sure," he added.

Dr. Michael Ferri is a psychiatrist and addiction specialist at The Next Door, a Nashville drug addiction treatment center. He explained a typical path that can lead addicts, knowingly or unknowingly, into the world of fentanyl.

“For the vast majority of Americans who become addicted to opioids, they start with pain pills. And pain pills are available everywhere,” Ferri told us. “But once a person is hooked on pain pills, then they try to obtain more and in higher doses. And at a certain point, buying oxy (oxycontin)... things like that… off the street becomes too expensive, whereas powder heroin is available too at a much cheaper price and for a better high. And that's then where the fentanyl comes in. The drug dealers can cut that fentanyl to make it cheaper for them to make it a more potent product.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration website shows that fentanyl was first developed in 1959 and introduced in the 1960s as an intravenous anesthetic. It is legally manufactured and distributed in the United States.

But illegal fentanyl is cheap to produce, with operations in Mexico and Asia funneling it into the country. Last year, authorities arrested a woman at the Nashville International Airport whose luggage contained nearly one-million doses of fentanyl. 22-year-old Reem Ibrahim told police she was promised $1,000 to deliver the luggage here.

According to the DEA, fentanyl can be injected, snorted, smoked, taken by pill or tablet, and spiked onto blotter paper. It is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin as an analgesic.

“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, so it's in the same family of morphine and heroin and Demerol and all theopioids.” Ferri added. “What makes it sort of unique is that it's incredibly potent and even a small amount of it can stimulate the opioid receptors in a person's body far more, up to 100 more times than morphine and heroin can.”

Concerns about the potency of fentanyl have first responders on edge. Last month, Metro officers were at an apartment on Hillsboro Pike when someone in the residence tried to flush a large bag of white powder down the toilet. When an officer tried to stop him, the bag ripped open and sprayed the officer in the face. The substance tested positive for heroin and when the officer became nauseous, he was taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for treatment out of concern he could have been exposed tofentanyl.

Agents with the 18th Judicial Drug Task Force, which operates primarily in Sumner County, have become so concerned they’ve put safety steps in place that include respirators and protective clothing to deal with potential exposure. Task force director Kelly Murphy told News 2’s Andy Cordan that an amount equal to five individual grains of table salt can overcome a human’s respiratory system. Extra precautions are taken after evidence is collected. Double-bagging with warnings are the order of the day.

Americans are now more likely to die from a drug overdose than a car accident. In 2017, drug overdoses killed more than 70,000 people. Opioids, including fentanyl, are the leading driver.

"We continue to respond to the overdose calls and support programs for people who are addicts of prescription medications and street drugs,” Schaeffer says. “Yes, these numbers are actual people and it's hard for us to keep going to people's families and telling them their loved ones are dead because they overdosed."

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