News reports are filled with stories about the problem of fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription pills increasing in the US. This year Drug and Alcohol Dependence, an international journal, examined trends in fentanyl seizures in the US from 2018 through 2021. The authors aimed to determine whether there have been shifts in the number of fentanyl seizures and in the form of fentanyl seized in the US, possibly placing a wider population at risk for unintentional exposure.
It’s no surprise that seizures of drugs containing fentanyl have been increasing along with the increased shipments. But the results from the studies show that over a quarter of fentanyl seizures are now in counterfeit pills, disguised as oxycodone or other prescription drugs.
We hear about the overwhelming number of overdose deaths resulting from fentanyl-laced drugs, but there’s another, sometimes overlooked statistic: nonfatal fentanyl-related poisonings have also skyrocketed. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse examined National Poison Control data and found that characteristics of individuals exposed to fentanyl continue to shift, with use via inhalation increasing and medical outcomes of nonfatal poisonings becoming more severe.
We previously wrote about the US Drug Enforcement Administration issuing a safety alert concerning the problem of International and domestic criminal drug networks flooding the United States with lethal counterfeit pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine. According to the alert, these pills – over 10 million seized last year — are “mass-produced by criminal drug networks in labs, deceptively marketed as legitimate prescription pills, and are killing unsuspecting Americans at an unprecedented rate.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses the latest technologies, including handheld narcotics analyzers, to help analyze and identify drugs and their precursors. These analyzers used at ports, borders, and even mail facilities, help keep these deadly substances off the streets and can also help keep CBP agents safe from exposure.
Some of these material identification devices are quickly able to successfully identify – within minutes – unknown substances including fentanyl. The Raman technology enables a user to conduct non-contact and non-destructive analysis of samples in transparent and translucent containers without the need to open them and manipulate each sample, thus increasing user safety. Conversely, although FTIR spectroscopy requires direct contact analysis, it is more efficient and safer when identifying dark-colored substances such as black tar heroin. It also has fewer chemical limitations and performs better on substances that suffer from very high levels of fluorescence, which sometimes obscures Raman spectra. Both technologies thus complement each other as well as confirm results obtained by each other.
By integrating both Raman and FTIR into a single analyzer, operators harness the power of each technology while enabling a broader range of chemical identification, providing complementary and confirmatory testing in a single, field-portable device. (Read how airports are using spectroscopy instruments for incoming drugs.)
Protecting borders is especially difficult, but it is crucial to detect and deter dangerous substances before they reach the public. These officers and the tools they use to identify counterfeit pills are major lines of defense in keeping to keep fentanyl from hurting and killing unsuspecting victims.
Joseph J. Palamar, Linda B. Cottler, Bruce A. Goldberger, Stevan Geoffrey Severtson, David J. Grundy, Janetta L. Iwanicki & Daniel Ciccarone (2022) Trends in characteristics of fentanyl-related poisonings in the United States, 2015-2021, The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, DOI: 10.1080/00952990.2022.2081923
Joseph J. Palamar, Daniel Ciccarone, Caroline Rutherford, Katherine M. Keyes, Thomas H. Carr, Linda B. Cottler, Trends in seizures of powders and pills containing illicit fentanyl in the United States, 2018 through 2021, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Volume 234,2022.