Why the myth that police are overdosing by touching fentanyl won't die

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The dangers of fentanyl misinformation: Why the myth that police are overdosing by touching the drug keeps going

The story was horrifying — and compelling: A police officer in East Liverpool, Ohio, accidentally overdosed from fentanyl in 2017. Several news outlets reported that the police officer landed in the hospital after brushing fentanyl off his uniform with his bare hands.

Only minutes later, the articles said, the officer began to feel as if his body was “shutting down.” Police believed that he was experiencing an overdose.

But the story, which according to a 2020 study was shared on Facebook 133,751 times with a potential reach of almost 21 million views, wasn’t true. It’s impossible to overdose on fentanyl through touch or incidental contact.

Yet tales of law enforcement officers or others overdosing on the drug through mere touch continue to circulate. This misinformation is fueled by the Drug Enforcement Agency and other law enforcement agencies who benefit from drug panics and perpetuated by sensationalized reporting that is overly reliant on statements from government agencies.

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Those myths risk obscuring the real and growing problem of fentanyl abuse in the United States, which kills more than 100,000 people each year. It also makes it harder to fight, experts say, by encouraging overly harsh penalties or other policies. These myths about fentanyl may also make first responders or bystanders less likely to help actual overdose victims because of misguided fears about overdosing by touching the person in need of help.

Fentanyl misinformation “perpetuates a lot of harms against people who use drugs,” said Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist and assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine who co-authored the 2020 study. “Not only that, but it distracts resources, time, attention from what we could actually be doing when 100,000 Americans are dying every year from preventable causes.”

Marino and his co-authors identified the case in East Liverpool as garnering the first widespread international news story of accidental fentanyl overdose through incidental exposure. Yet there were several holes in the narrative, Marino said: The officer was never actually tested for fentanyl, his symptoms — which included his “body shutting down” — were not specific to a fentanyl overdose, and the officer was later fired for misconduct.

And, most obviously, fentanyl poisoning in this manner is simply not possible.

Yet most of the stories on the alleged 2017 incident were never corrected, even by mainstream media outlets such as CBS, CNN and Sky News. Now, years later, the fentanyl myth surrounding incidental touch persists and has only gotten bigger.

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Why East Liverpool went viral

The East Liverpool story went viral just as the United States was becoming aware of the scope of its emerging fentanyl-abuse problem.

By 2016, fentanyl and other synthetic opioid drugs had overtaken prescription drugs as the most common cause of overdose deaths in the United States, according to research published in JAMA, the flagship journal of the American Medical Association. And data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the number of deaths from overdoses of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids doubled from 2015 to 2016.

That spurred the DEA to issue a now-deleted news release warning law enforcement about fentanyl overdose through incidental contact, warning that “a very small amount ingested, or absorbed through your skin, can kill you.” The 2016 DEA news release went viral, on Facebook specifically, among law enforcement, coinciding with the increased presence of fentanyl in the street drug supply, said Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University and a co-author with Marino of the 2020 study on the spread of fentanyl misinformation. “Facebook is very popular in law enforcement,” he said. “It just really spread like wildfire.”

And the DEA kept reinforcing the myth. In a June 2017 video published just weeks after the East Liverpool incident, Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg warned U.S. law enforcement that “fentanyl is deadly” and “exposure to an amount equivalent to a few grains of sand can kill you.”

Even though the myth has been debunked numerous times, the false narrative lives on, Beletsky said: “It just is like a myth that refuses to die.”

In 2018, for instance, it popped up in a news release issued by then-Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine following the sentencing of a man who was sent to prison for “exposing” the East Liverpool officer to fentanyl. “Fentanyl is so dangerous that even the slightest exposure can be deadly, but thankfully in this case naloxone was close at hand,” DeWine said.

More recently, in July, a story about a Nashville woman who allegedly picked up a dollar bill and suffered an accidental fentanyl overdose went viral. And earlier this month, Fox News published an article claiming that a Florida police officer was “left choking and breathless after she collapsed as a result of a possible exposure to fentanyl during a traffic stop.” The U.K.’s Daily Mail covered the story too. It soon went viral on social media, with people like Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody sharing it on Twitter.

The drug panic feedback loop

The DEA and its predecessors (like the Federal Bureau of Narcotics) have a history of spreading disinformation about drugs, Beletsky said, through both official channels and by working with screenwriters and other content creators to include anti-drug messaging into films and television shows.

An early example of this is the 1936 movie “Reefer Madness,” which is a drug propaganda film about the dangers of marijuana. According to reporting from JSTOR Daily, the movie “reflected a real drug panic sweeping America.” A year after the movie came out, the government enacted a marijuana tax, which, per JSTOR Daily, represented “the first of many subsequent laws cracking down on the drug and anyone associated with it.”

“It comes as part of a long tradition in the spread of disinformation around drugs,” Beletsky said. “And it’s very hard to work with dispelling something that is being spread by the agency that is supposed to be the flagship agency for drug law enforcement and drug issues.” The DEA and other drug law enforcement agencies benefit from drug panics, he added.


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“The more public concern there is around drug problems, and the more the agency and its sister agencies center themselves in that conversation, the more resources and public support they receive,” Beletsky said. Compounding the problem, the media does not always identify such official disinformation for what it is: wrong.

Lewis Nelson, professor of emergency medicine and chief of the Division of Medical Toxicology at Rutgers Medical School, thinks part of the reason why the media often perpetuates fentanyl misinformation is as simple as a lack of fact-checking. “They publish stories based on some perceived authority’s statement that they accept as truth,” he said. “But nobody goes back and says, ‘Why did this happen, and is it legitimate?’”

And many journalists who report on drugs are not necessarily health reporters, Beletsky said, and may be less skeptical of law enforcement’s claims about fentanyl based on a lack of background knowledge.

There’s also an element of sensationalism that appeals to many media outlets.

Drug panics are sensational, Beletsky said, and they attract public attention, which helps get people to engage with the news story on the topic. That can create a symbiotic relationship between the interests of law enforcement and the interests of news media when it comes to drug panics, he added. Sensational claims spread, feeding additional attention. And in the case of fentanyl panic, misinformation may drive police to panic when they are exposed to fentanyl — prompting symptoms of severe stress that feed further false claims about overdose.

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Compounding the problem, the public is drawn to misinformation because it’s “flagrant” and “exciting,” said Jeremiah Goulka, executive director of the Shield Training Initiative, which provides training for law enforcement and other first responders on responding to drug overdoses. “The real scientific information, however, is not as exciting, so it does not spread.”

A real response to bad information

Law enforcement who are described as having physical symptoms through fentanyl exposure often do have a genuine physical response to the drug — what’s called the “nocebo effect,” Nelson said.

The more familiar placebo effect is a beneficial effect produced by a treatment but not related to the properties of the treatment itself — a benefit from belief that a treatment will help, essentially. The nocebo effect is a negative effect from exposure to something a person believes will cause harmful or unwanted effects, even if that thing itself is inert or inactive.

Nelson said that it’s perfectly reasonable, then, that when police officers are exposed to fentanyl after being told it can poison people through incidental exposure, they might experience real physical symptoms.

Goulka put it more bluntly: “What’s happening is people are having panic responses because they think they’re going to die. And they’re being told that they are going to die.”

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Fentanyl misinformation is dangerous in other ways too. There have been situations where first responders have been hesitant or reluctant to respond to overdoses, Goulka said, because they are afraid that encountering fentanyl will kill them.

Marino said that news media play a crucial role in stopping fentanyl misinformation. If the substance involved in an alleged overdose is unconfirmed, or if there is no medical confirmation that an overdose occurred, Marino said reporters and the public should be more skeptical.

“If there were other things that were blatantly untrue, I think people would be a little more alarmed or surprised,” Marino said. “But when it comes to drugs and drug topics, the standards we hold ourselves to, not just in reporting but in society, go out the window.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Khaya Himmelman
    Khaya Himmelman

    Reporter

    Khaya Himmelman is a reporter at Grid. A former misinformation reporter for the Dispatch, she is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Barnard College. Khaya has appeared on CNN to discuss misinformation in the media.