Extra-lethal heroin raising alarms throughout Ohio

The Miami Valley Regional Crime lab says even a small amount can be deadly.

Columbus police are warning about a deadly batch of heroin there after 27 people overdosed in a span of 24 hours beginning Tuesday. Two men in their 40s have died.

The Franklin County overdose outbreak raises the specter that a dangerous synthetic opioid like carfentanil may be involved. Already blamed for at least eight deaths and dozens of recent overdoses in Hamilton County, the extraordinarily potent elephant tranquilizer carfentanil was detected last week in the Dayton region for the first time in drugs confiscated during an area bust.

“It’s in our backyard. It’s here in our close region,” said Ken Betz director of the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab. “Dayton people can clearly buy some.”

The crime lab’s finding came last week, after lab equipment was calibrated to detect the opioid 100 times stronger than fentanyl, which itself is 30-50 times more powerful than heroin.

“It’s explicitly used for such creatures as rhinos and elephants, not human beings,” Betz said. “So the amount a human being takes requires just a very small amount to kill you.”

The appearance of carfentanil could be a stark harbinger of another wave of overdose deaths in an area overrun by opioids — first with heroin then fentanyl, Betz said.

“We clearly saw that a couple years ago,” Betz said. “When the laboratory started seeing fentanyl, all of a sudden the coroner’s office had a whole magnitude of deaths that were fentanyl-related.”

Only detected at the end of 2013, fentanyl was a primary or secondary factor in 104 of Montgomery County’s 185 opioid overdose deaths last year. Montgomery County coroner records indicate more will likely die of accidental overdose deaths in 2016 than the total of 259 in 2015.

In fact, carfentanil already may be a stealth killer here, Betz said. Some 10-15 deaths of undetermined cause will now get another look as the coroner’s office tests again looking for carfentanil.

“We are going back in time now that we have a carfentanil standard, and we’re re-examining in a sense some of our historical cases,” Betz said. “At the time of the analysis, we knew or suspected a drug overdose but could not find anything from normal toxicology procedures.”

Betz declined to disclose the jurisdiction investigating the case as authorities are still investigating how the carfentanil was brought to the locality. The lab serves about 70 area law enforcement agencies in multiple southwest Ohio counties as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Dayton office.

Carfentanil is so powerful that in July Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine warned police agencies across the state against handling or field testing street drugs that could contain dangerous levels of fentanyl or carfentanil.

The two can be so potent even a small amount absorbed through the skin or inhaled can cause death, said Chris Melink, resident agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s Dayton office.

Betz said a few granules the size of table salt can be toxic — chemists in the crime lab keep the opioid overdose antidote naloxone nearby.

“Just handling it can result in death,” Betz said. “Our concern now is that it’s on the street.”

The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this story.

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