Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

First It Was Painkillers, Then Heroin. Now It's Fentanyl Driving Record Overdose Deaths in St. Louis Area

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

First It Was Painkillers, Then Heroin. Now It's Fentanyl Driving Record Overdose Deaths in St. Louis Area

Article excerpt

The country's opioid epidemic is more than a decade old, but its worst threat has rapidly shifted. Synthetic fentanyl, a highly potent painkiller, is now involved in nearly all the drug overdose deaths in the St. Louis area.

With six weeks left in the year, Madison County has surpassed its annual record for opioid overdose deaths with 92. The previous high of 91 was set in 2014.

"Fentanyl has taken over as the drug that is killing people here," county coroner Stephen Nonn said. "When we go to a death scene and you still see the needle in the arm, we know it was fentanyl because it works that quick."

The opioid epidemic started with prescription painkiller abuse. Five years ago, heroin became the most common culprit in overdoses. Now those heroin users are overdosing on cross-contaminated drugs containing fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more powerful, Nonn said.

When someone addicted to heroin unknowingly takes a hit containing fentanyl, "the chances of dying from an overdose are tremendously increased," he said.

St. Louis city and county also are on pace for record-setting overdose deaths this year, said Brandon Costerison of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. That follows a record 760 opioid-related deaths in the St. Louis region in 2017. The city and county totals for 2018 should be available next year after final toxicology and investigative reports.

Nationally, drug overdoses killed a record 72,000 Americans last year. Fentanyl was identified in nearly half the cases, marking a huge spike from 2012, when the opioid was involved in 6 percent of 41,000 drug fatalities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

St. Louis is well above the national average, with up to 95 percent of overdose deaths involving the lethal drug, Costerison said.

Fentanyl is "a respiratory suppressant, and that's what kills you," he said.

Prescription fentanyl has long been used under strict controls in hospitals for anesthesia and severe pain management. …

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