Myths And Facts About Fentanyl Exposure And Overdose

As fentanyl overdoses continue to take an alarmingly high number of lives in the U.S., myths like just touching the drug can cause an overdose or even death have been spreading.

Fentanyl Exposure Myths And Facts

America’s fentanyl crisis is drawing a lot of attention to fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid involved in the majority of overdose deaths over the last several years.

However, myths about fentanyl exposure have also sprung up, many due to concerns about the safety of first responders who arrive on the scene of a fentanyl overdose.

Here are three of the most enduring myths surrounding fentanyl, and the truth behind the myths.

Myth #1: Touching Fentanyl Can Lead To Fainting Or Even Death

This myth may have been started when first responders became concerned about exposure after responding to a number of fentanyl overdoses.

There have been reports of police officers who have fainted or had panic attacks after coming into contact with fentanyl.

An article in Health & Justice claims that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spread misinformation perpetuating the myth when warning police about fentanyl.

According to Health & Justice, a statement from the DEA said that “fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin or accidental inhalation of airborne powder can also occur.”

Fact #1: A Fentanyl Overdose Is Not Possible Via Touch

Fentanyl is similar to another synthetic opioid, morphine, but 50 to 100 times more powerful. However, toxicologists say it is highly unlikely that it can be absorbed through the skin.

An exception to this would be fentanyl skin patches used for pain relief in hospitals, but the drug is absorbable this way due to the patch itself, which makes the skin more permeable. 

If the drug could be absorbed through contact with the skin, people who abuse fentanyl would probably rub it into their skin to obtain the drug’s effects.

Fear or extreme anxiety could be the cause of panic attacks or fainting related to fentanyl exposure.

Myth #2: Breathing Near Fentanyl Can Cause Toxicity And Death

This myth may have originated from 2016 news reports that an Ohio police officer overdosed on fentanyl after brushing powdered fentanyl off his uniform and breathing it in.

A recent episode of the TV crime drama series Big Sky may have fueled this myth. In the episode, a drug cartel bodyguard dies after a police officer throws powdered fentanyl in his face.

The DEA’s statement reported on by Health & Justice also would have perpetuated this myth.

In a 2002 incident in Moscow, a weaponized aerosol dispersal device containing carfentanil and remifentanil (two fentanyl analogs) was suspected to be used to subdue hostage-takers. 

This caused the deaths of 125 people. Although fentanyl wasn’t on the radar in the U.S. at the time, people who heard about the incident more recently may have believed that the fentanyl analogs on their own caused the deaths.

Fact #2: Breathing Near Fentanyl Is Very Unlikely To Cause Toxicity Or Death, But Inhaling It Directly Could

Around the same time as the Ohio police reports, the American College of Medical Toxicology (ACMT) and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology (AACT) released a statement on fentanyl.

It said that exposure is a concern if fentanyl particles are suspended in the air but went on to say that this is highly unlikely to happen, especially at a dose high enough to be fatal.

It gave the example of precautions industrial producers of fentanyl take to protect their workers. An unprotected worker would need 200 minutes of exposure at the highest airborne concentration to reach a 100 (microgram) mcg dose of fentanyl. 

A 100 mcg dose is considered the maximum standard dose of fentanyl, which a person would need to take 10 of to reach the 2 mg dose that is considered lethal.

The ACMT and AACT also reported that the optimized aerosol dispersal device is what made the fentanyl analogs so deadly in the 2002 hostage situation in Moscow.

However, if fentanyl were to be thrown into someone’s face, as it was on Big Sky, or if someone were to snort fentanyl from a short distance, it may be feasible that an overdose could occur.

Myth #3: Drug Dealers Are Trying To Entice Kids With Rainbow Fentanyl

This myth may have proliferated around Halloween when messages from some U.S. senators had parents scared that drug traffickers were targeting their children.

The idea was that drug dealers wanted to get customers hooked on their drugs from a young age so that they’d have lifelong customers.

In order to do this, the myth goes, they were creating fentanyl in a variety of bright colors and putting it in bags with colorful stickers to attract children.

Fact #3: Rainbow Fentanyl Is A Marketing Ploy

Rainbow fentanyl is a reality, but it isn’t being used to lure children to take drugs, according to Jon DeLena, associate special agent for the DEA.

DeLena said during the recent National Crime Prevention Council summit on fentanyl that there hasn’t been any direct information that children are being targeted.

University of Delaware sociology professor Joel Best recently told PBS News that it wouldn’t make sense to target children with fentanyl. 

“If you give a dose of fentanyl to kids in elementary school, you have an excellent chance of killing them,” he noted. 

Still, drug dealers may be using rainbow fentanyl to build their “brands” and increase their profits, much in the same way that they did with blue meth.

Fentanyl Addiction Treatment Options

It’s important that a distinction is made between fentanyl fact versus fiction so that emergency responders aren’t deterred from helping those who need help.

Although fentanyl addiction is considered an incurable mental health condition, it is treatable.

Medication-assisted treatment and medical detox are just two evidence-based approaches that are helping people recover from fentanyl abuse. 

Find Addiction Recovery Today

If you or a loved one are living with a substance use disorder, reach out to us to learn about treatment options for lasting recovery.

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