The myth that fentanyl can cause an overdose through simple skin contact has been peddled by law enforcement trainers and the media despite a scientific agreement that it’s a medical impossibility. But a study published August 24 by Harm Reduction Journal shows that first responders’ misconceptions can be almost entirely reversed by a brief presentation of the facts.
In Missouri between January and August 2019, over 100 first responders, including EMS personnel and law enforcement officers, attended evidence-based trainings on fentanyl. Their beliefs about the effects of simply touching fentanyl were polled both before and after a 10-minute presentation. The trainings covered “the nature of addiction as a chronic brain disease, harm reduction principles, concerns about ‘enabling’ drug use [through naloxone revivals…] the role of addiction treatment medications, and Missouri’s naloxone and Good Samaritan laws, in addition to accurate information regarding the medical impossibility of overdosing from incidental skin exposure to fentanyl.”
The results showed just how widespread that last myth was: 80 percent of study participants indicated on the pre-training survey that the statement, “I can overdose from touching fentanyl,” was true. Notably, 84 percent of the 113 surveyed law enforcement officers held the false belief, compared with 63 percent of the 27 participating EMS professionals.
The study authors attribute this pre-training disparity to “EMS personnel having more formal medical training, more experience responding to opioid overdoses than LEOs, and less interaction with police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) colleagues who have been the driving force behind misinformation about risks of fentanyl contact.”
The United States government has bankrolled such unevidenced trainings for law enforcement. For example, as Filter reported, the National Guard awarded in September 2019 over $100,000 in funding for fentanyl education to a contractor with a history of making false claims—like that “a few grains” of fentanyl are “enough to potentially kill a 250lb man,” or that an “an officer can die in less than 3 minutes” following the onset of such an overdose.
After the training, the proportion of participants who correctly marked the statement “I can overdose from touching fentanyl” as false leaped to 83 percent. Some disparity remained between law enforcement officers and EMS personel, with 81 percent and 92 percent, respectively, marking it false.
The persistence of the stigmatizing, easily correctable myth has mortal stakes for people who overdose. An entire market for fentanyl-specific personal protective equipment has popped up because of this misinformation, the authors note. And the idea that an emergency responder might need to don a hazmat suit, as has been indicated by certain jurisdictions, would unnecessarily slow down response to a situation that could, and does, result in death.
Photograph of the quantity sometimes purported to be lethal in skin exposure incidents, by the Drug Enforcement Administration via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain