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At least 10 Luzerne County residents have died this year from heroin mixed with a powerful new synthetic substance called furanyl fentanyl, county Coroner William Lisman said.
Concocted in Chinese labs, this designer derivative of the pain medication fentanyl is “significantly more powerful than heroin,” Lisman said.
Lisman said he learned through experts that some drug dealers are using furanyl fentanyl as a “cutting agent” to make their product stand out among competition.
“They’re marketing it as a better high,” he said.
Drug experts in other states also have theorized dealers are turning to furanyl fentanyl and other fillers because they can’t meet the high demand for pure heroin.
Medical and law enforcement officials across the country have been issuing warnings about the potency of furanyl fentanyl and its deadly effect on unsuspecting heroin users.
“It makes the impact of the heroin stronger than what the user expects it to be,” Lisman said.
Hazleton’s acting Police Chief Jerry Speziale said last month a “marked increase” in heroin-related overdoses in Hazleton and surrounding areas may stem in part from drugs laced with forms of fentanyl that are passing through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
Narcan, an antidote used to reverse the effects of heroin, often is ineffective or must be administered several times when furanyl fentanyl is present, officials say.
Lisman stressed the deaths involving furanyl fentanyl occurred throughout the county, not only in the Hazleton area.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey , R-Zionsville, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry last week urging him to put more pressure on the Chinese government to stop the export of illicit fentanyl and its offshoot compounds.
Toomey’s letter said recent news reports and law enforcement investigations point to a rising number of opioid overdoses attributable to Chinese-made fentanyl and its analogues that are being “surreptitiously added to heroin and counterfeit prescription opioid pills.”
“Despite some efforts by the government of China to prohibit the export of synthetic fentanyl, this drug and other illicit substances such as ‘bath salts’ continue to enter the United States, both directly and via the Mexican drug cartels,” he wrote. “Chinese manufacturers have also begun exporting a new domestically-unregulated yet equally lethal fentanyl look-alike known as furanyl fentanyl, thus underscoring the urgent need for international action.”
Staying on top of new synthetic drugs creates a challenge for coroners and other medical professionals trying to pinpoint the cause of death, Lisman said.
In five overdose death cases this year, autopsies and advanced lab tests were needed to establish furanyl fentanyl was involved, Lisman said.
The county was unable to identify the drug that caused two overdose deaths this year through an autopsy and advanced testing, he said.
“They keep tweaking these drug formulas, and it’s hard for labs to stay up with what’s on the streets,” Lisman said.
Lisman requires automatic drug screening for all deceased under 50, unless they were in hospice or receiving treatment for a documented illness. Testing also is conducted for some cases involving victims over age 50, he said.
Testing ranges from $193 to around $464, depending on the level of detail required.
Lisman also warned of several recent deaths caused by cocaine.
“Cocaine was kind of off the books, and there’s been a recent resurgence in cocaine-related deaths,” Lisman said.
Cocaine users roll the dice each time they use because there is no “safe” amount, he said. Someone can die from using the same quantity or less than they have before, he said.
The heart stops beating in death by cocaine, he said. In comparison, a heroin overdose causes fluid the build up in the lungs, known as pulmonary edema, he said.
Last year there were 95 confirmed drug overdose deaths in the county. The number this year to date: 50, he said.
“We’re on track to exceed last year’s numbers,” Lisman said.
He does not believe the overall number of people abusing drugs has grown significantly in the county.
“I think we have a spike in the potency of what drug users are consuming, and they should be careful,” he said.