Va. first responders now carrying masks to avoid opioid exposure
A recent incident in which a rescue worker needed treatment for possible exposure to an opioid prompted the move
By Scott Shenk
The Free Lance-Star
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — The growing problem of illicitly produced opioid drugs is not only impacting users. Police and rescue crews also face increasing risks when responding to calls.
The toxic concoction of heroin, fentanyl and a potent large-animal tranquilizer called carfentanil, along with illicitly produced synthetic opioids and possibly other chemicals, have led to increasing overdose deaths in Virginia and across the United States in recent years.
Emergency workers also can fall victim to the drugs, which can be unwittingly absorbed through the skin or inhaled.
In response to that threat, the Fredericksburg Police Department and city fire and rescue crews now carry filtered masks aimed to protect them from inhaling airborne opioids. A recent incident in which a rescue worker needed treatment for possible exposure to an opioid prompted the move, Fredericksburg Fire Capt. Victor Podbielski said.
The crew member was treated at a local hospital and turned out to be OK. But Podbielski said officials with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is investigating the incident, suggested the fire department start using the masks.
“The number one concern for us is respiratory [ingestion], because if you breathe it in, it’s rapid,” Podbielski said.
As recently as just a few years ago, synthetic opioid overdoses were rare, but that has changed dramatically, he said. For instance, he said emergency workers once used the drug naloxone to revive people a few times a year, but now it’s virtually a weekly occurrence.
“It’s just crazy what a problem it’s become,” he said.
Senior police Officer Michael Athenry agreed.
The veteran Fredericksburg officer, who also has been a fireman, said “it’s a big challenge” when responding to calls, because in some cases the officers have no idea the drug is present.
Officers have used the masks four times since the department got them three weeks ago, Athenry said.
He pointed out that even if officers do suspect drugs will be at a scene, they might not see the danger: microscopic doses of fentanyl can cause serious problems.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has called synthetic opioids a “significant threat” to police and other emergency responders, reporting that “any substance suspected to contain fentanyl should be treated with extreme caution as exposure to a small amount can lead to significant health-related complications, respiratory depression, or death.”
An amount of fentanyl equal to five to seven grains of salt is enough to cause health problems, the DEA said. It suggests that first responders wear particulate dust masks to protect themselves from exposure.
The masks used by city emergency crews are more elaborate than those dust masks, but can be found at many stores. Podbielski said the masks being used by Fredericksburg police and emergency crews came from Lowes.
But specialized training is required, and the masks have to be specially fitted to each person who uses them.
“These masks have been around as long as I can remember,” said Podbielski, who added that similar types of masks were used in World Wars I and II to protect soldiers from chemical warfare.
Filters inserted into the masks can block 99.9 percent of particulates such as fentanyl, Podbielski said.
The Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office does not use such masks. Neither do Spotsylvania fire and rescue crews.
Some Stafford sheriff’s detectives received special hazmat training in handling dangerous substances from the DEA last year. Stafford has said its deputies carry gloves, eye protection and a mask, but officials did not respond to a question Friday about the type of masks used.
Stafford Fire Chief Mark Lockhart said his department’s crews carry surgical-type masks with them as protection. He added that, with the “increased threat” of opioid exposure, they are keeping an eye on the situation in case they need to adjust.
“This is a 24/7 problem,” the chief said. “This is something that is here to stay. It’s not going away.”
The opioid problem started to spike in 2013 and has grown exponentially in the years since. In 2016, more than 42,000 people died of opioid overdoses in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The total number of opioid overdose deaths in the state for 2017 is still being compiled, but in December the Virginia Department of Health estimated there would be 1,515 for the year. There were 1,138 opioid overdose deaths in the state in 2016, and the year before that 811 died of such overdoses.
Fredericksburg reported six deaths last year among the 35 opioid overdoses, both up from 2016. In Stafford, there were 111 opioid-related overdoses and 16 deaths, both up from the previous year. Spotsylvania reported 188 opioid-related overdoses and 17 deaths in 2017.
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