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First Responder Occupational Exposure to Fentanyl

First responders who come into contact with fentanyl can suffer serious injuries or death as a result of the exposure. Adherence to established safety protocols is not always enough to protect workers from exposure to illicit substances. Nationwide, as the opioid epidemic continues to expand, so too does the risk for paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and other first responders.

The Deadliest Drug

Fentanyl is many times more potent than other opioids. It is 80 times more potent than morphine and it is lethal in doses as small as 2 milligrams. Fentanyl is often mixed in with other narcotics to intensify their potency and make them more addictive. It’s a deadly mix that is contributing to the rising rate of opioid-related fatalities. In 2016, synthetic opioids including fentanyl were responsible for 19,413 fatalities. This was almost half of all opioid-related deaths in the country. In 2017, that number rose to almost 59% of fatalities. In Nevada, 412 people died of opioid overdoses in 2017. Of these, 66 involved fentanyl. In fact, Nevada has a very high rate of opioid addiction. There are 73 opioid prescriptions per 100 people in Nevada which is far higher than the average of 58 per 100 reported nationally.      

Recognizing Exposure

Prompt recognition of exposure is essential for saving the lives of first responders and establishing a workers’ compensation claim. Signs of exposure to opioids include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and anxiety. Exposure can occur transdermally via contact with an injured party’s skin or bodily fluids. It can also occur through inhalation of aerosolized substances. Symptoms generally appear shortly after contact and it is vital to provide prompt treatment when exposure is suspected as the time from contact to death can be as short as a few minutes.    

First Responder Safety

First responders should adhere to safety protocols when treating any injured party or processing a crime scene. This includes assessing the scene and the injured party for the presence of opioids. It also requires the use of the proper personal protective equipment and the safe handling of any substance suspected of containing opioids. Individuals must also know how to recognize opioid toxicity and administer naloxone when required. Naloxone is highly effective at reversing the effects of opioid medications and has reported success rates of between 75% to 100% in various studies. 

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