DES MOINES, Iowa --For decades, fentanyl has been used in hospitals to treat extreme pain either following surgery or during cancer treatments.
“It's usually in a pill form, in some cases it might be a sucker, it might be a patch, but there's really no concern in regards to contamination or overdose if used properly” said Kevin Gabbert, Opioids Initiatives Director for the Iowa Department of Public Health.
But illicit versions of the drug shipped in from overseas aren’t used or stored with the same care, often times as a loose powder. While experts say simply having the powder touch your skin will not trigger an overdose, it does pose much more of a risk.
“So basically, what has to happen is the fentanyl has to be disturbed in some way or you touch something that has fentanyl residue on it and it is absorbed through a mucus membrane. So, inhalation is the most common way that's going to occur, but if an individual touches something and then touches their nose or touches their mouth that's when the risk of overdose can occur” said Gabbert.
The front-line effort in preventing overdose deaths for first responders being exposed comes down to training and the overdose reversal drug Narcan.
“Our vice and narcotics section keep it handy because if they're doing search warrants that's not necessarily an environment where you could have immediate access to emergency medical services because of the dynamics and the dangers of those types of efforts by the police department” said Des Moines Police Spokesman Paul Parizek.
Parizek says officers on other parts of the force would rely on paramedics for Narcan. Finding a way to store the drug in a temperature-controlled environment to preserve its 18 month shelf life has been a problem, and the cost to outfit the department would be a little over $12,000.
Teamster Political Coordinator Jim Romar says it's a cost every city should provide for its department.
“When it comes to opioids and an overdose on some of those items, literally minutes can count the difference between life and death. The number one job of government is to provide for the public safety and public safety's number one job is to make sure we save lives” said the former police officer.
Experts say fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin if it comes in a liquid form, but it's rare to see that outside of a hospital where it is used in IV drips.