Most people probably have some idea of what fentanyl is. Those who have suffered extreme pain may know fentanyl as a highly effective anesthetic and pain medication; others may know it because of the outcry in recent years over the epidemic of opioid addiction in the U.S., and the stories about fentanyl-laced heroin and other drugs.
The question that led to this week’s episode of “No Dumb Questions” is more specific: Why is fentanyl killing so many people?
It’s a dangerous substance, to be sure, but there are many other dangerous substances out there. Deaths from fentanyl use are counted in the tens of thousands in the U.S. — last year they reached 100,000 — with overdoses spiking among young people in particular. Last week, Grid Science Reporter Dan Vergano reported on “rainbow fentanyl” — the “latest lethal twist,” as he called it, in the nation’s opioid crisis.
No one better than Vergano, then, to tackle the question in this week’s series. As he notes, fentanyl’s danger derives, first, from potency; it’s about 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin.
“It turns out that what’s really killing people isn’t only that sheer potency,” Vergano said, “but the variability of the drug in the illicit drug market.” In other words, beyond what Vergano called “the sheer punch” of fentanyl, there is an uneven distribution of doses on the illicit drug market. “And so people who are buying these drugs illegally, don’t know what they’re getting.”
There’s much more to it — and needless to say this isn’t a “dumb question” at all. It’s deadly serious.
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Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this video.