With Opioids So Strong, Here's How DEA Agents Protect Themselves

"Whereas heroin can kill you in milligrams, fentanyl can kill you in micrograms”

Inside a Philadelphia heroin mill in early September, law enforcement found more than 30,000 bags of the opioid. 

The big bust in the Summerdale section nearly became a catastrophe when three city police officers and a state investigator were overcome by what some believe was the deadly synthetic opioid, fentanyl.

Narcan saved their lives.

It was the most recent lesson for law enforcement, and first responders like paramedics, in the ever-growing opioid epidemic: More protective gear than ever is needed when responding to an opioid-related incident. 

Other incidents, like an overdose in Bucks County in July that sent two paramedics, an EMT and a firefighter to a nearby hospital, are forcing local authorities to buy better protection. Since fentanyl officially entered the southeastern Pennsylvania illicit drug market last year, first responder overdoses have become a major concern.

Fentanyl is many times stronger than heroin.

"Whereas heroin can kill you in milligrams, fentanyl can kill you in micrograms,” said Gary Tuggle, the Drug Enforcement Administration's agent-in-charge for Philadelphia. 


The DEA has already ramped up its response safety protocol, as was clearly on display during a demonstration for NBC10. Tuggle gave a reporter the opportunity to see what it's like to gear up for a heroin and fentanyl bust.

Agents strap on a bulletproof vest and a breathing apparatus that reminds of a scuba diver. Then on comes a fully enclosed green suit that harkens to "The X-Files."

"What you're seeing here is the Level A suit, which is the highest level," DEA Special Agent Pat Trainor said.

The increasing potency brings increasing precaution, and health officials said the synthetic opioid boom is far from over.

Dr. Barry Logan, chief scientist and director of toxicology services at NMS Labs in Willow Grove, is seeing new synthetic forms every month.

NMS Labs is one of the country's major testing centers, having studied blood samples of more than 15,000 fentanyl-related deaths. Logan said illicit chemists keep altering the deadly additive.

"It’s not just one substance now when we’re talking about fentanyl, it’s potentially up to about 20 or 30 different variants on fentanyl," Logan said.

One variant of even greater potency is already feared to be here: carfentanil, or "gray death," which is up to 1,000 times as strong as heroin. 

After the overdose incident in Bucks County that sent some of his medics to the hospital, an official with the local ambulance squad said new protective gear, including a Hazmat-grade arm sleeve made of a material called Tyvek, would be required.

But it had not yet arrived days after the July incident.

“It’s on back order because this stuff is so popular now,” he said.

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