Chemical field tests for synthetic opioids put police officers and first responders at significant risk for serious illness, accidental overdose, and death, even when the proper safety gear is used. Police officers are particularly vulnerable to work-related injuries from fentanyl exposure on routine DWI stops where they often encounter unknown substances. The use of chemical field tests can put them in danger of exposure to fentanyl through inhalation, contact with skin or clothing, or needlesticks. The DEA warns that just two or three milligrams of fentanyl, a measurement equivalent to five to seven grains of table salt, is enough to cause respiratory distress, cardiac arrest, and even death.
Dangers of Chemical Field Tests
The use of chemical field tests poses significant dangers to police officers and first responders. In 2017, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a warning to all law enforcement agencies and emergency first responders about the dangers of synthetic opioid exposure.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s commonly sold on the street. It is extremely toxic in small doses. Fentanyl is about 100 times stronger than morphine and 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin. Exposure to just a small amount of fentanyl can cause police officers or paramedics to experience cardiac arrest, life-threatening respiratory distress, drug overdose, and even death. Fentanyl exposure can occur through contact with the skin or mucous membranes, inhalation, ingestion, and percutaneous exposure (needlestick). In 2016, an Ohio police officer collapsed and required emergency hospital treatment after performing a chemical field test when he simply brushed a small amount fentanyl off of his uniform with his hand. Other cases of accidental overdose in police officers and paramedics have been reported around the country.
Recent DEA warnings recommend ways to safely handle synthetic opioids to avoid accidental exposure. The DEA recommends that all police officers and emergency medical workers be trained to recognize the drug and be equipped with personal protective gear such as dust masks, safety glasses, gloves, paper suits, and shoe covers to avoid exposure. They also recommend that all law enforcement and first responders carry naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote, at all times. DEA and CDC information on opioid drugs provides police officers and first responders with safety precautions when doing chemical field tests for fentanyl in the field.