Pushing fentanyl fear, Pinellas sheriff gets thousands for drug tests

Researchers have concluded in recent years that accidental exposure to fentanyl poses low risk to police. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says contactless testing is a matter of life or death.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri talks during a news conference in 2022. He's asked the County Commission for $625,000 for contactless drug testing technology, basing his argument on debunked information about the risk accidental fentanyl contact poses to deputies.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri talks during a news conference in 2022. He's asked the County Commission for $625,000 for contactless drug testing technology, basing his argument on debunked information about the risk accidental fentanyl contact poses to deputies. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 28|Updated March 28

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri asked the county on Tuesday to invest hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in contactless technology to field-test suspected drugs. To him, the promise of TruNarc to test for them in the field is about life and death.

The County Commission approved the request of $625,000 for 25 TruNarc analyzers, which use lasers to determine the composition of a substance, at $25,000 a pop. It was part of a blanket 6-0 vote on a series of budgetary requests they had already determined were not controversial.

But Gualtieri’s rationale for why his agency needs the kits — that the ever-growing presence of fentanyl on the streets puts his deputies at risk of a fatal overdose simply through touching or breathing near the drug — clashes with scientific consensus. Researchers have determined that the risk of any harm, much less death, to first responders from fentanyl through skin or the air is exceptionally low.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Gualtieri, asked about scientists’ conclusions, which he said he wasn’t interested in seeing. “The reason why we’re doing it is this: I don’t want a dead deputy.”

Fears about accidental exposure to fentanyl, the powerful opioid responsible for an epidemic of overdoses among those who use drugs, began coursing through law enforcement and American society in 2016. That year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warned that accidentally touching the drug, or inhaling even small amounts of it through the air, could be fatal: “The onset of adverse health effects, such as disorientation, coughing, sedation, respiratory distress or cardiac arrest is very rapid and profound.”

Rejoinders soon followed. In 2017, the American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology said in a joint statement that, while first responders should know the signs of opioid overdose and carry the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, incidental harm from the drug would be almost impossible in the field. It would take hours of breathing in fentanyl-tainted air to experience even therapeutic affects, the groups noted.

“It cost $100 million to develop the fentanyl patch” used in clinical settings, said Brandon del Pozo, a former police chief who’s now an assistant professor at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School. “The reason why it took so long and it’s so expensive is because it’s so hard to get fentanyl through your skin without putting it in a special formula. Fentanyl does not want to go through your skin, and it does not just hang in the air.”

In the years after, the Drug Enforcement Administration took down its initial fentanyl bulletin. It now advises that harm is unlikely and suggests wearing gloves, goggles and the now-familiar N95 face masks. Researchers including del Pozo have documented the spread of fentanyl misinformation and found promise in corrective training for officers.

Viral videos and stories of officers purportedly overdosing have been debunked by scientists and in the news. The symptoms often exhibited in these reports — rapid breathing, anxiety — don’t line up with the effects of opioids, which are so sinister in part because of the calm and sluggishness they induce in the user, del Pozo said.

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Among all these reports, del Pozo said, none has ever been clinically confirmed as a response to fentanyl.

Still, he said, many in law enforcement have been caught up “in this syndrome that has taken on a life of its own. You’ve got to sympathize with these officers — when they’re passing out, it’s a health emergency. It’s just not because of fentanyl.”

In a letter to County Administrator Barry Burton requesting the money for the TruNarc tests, Gualtieri said his agency has “experienced several incidents” of drug exposure, including “a recent incident where we had to administer (the naloxone brand) Narcan to a deputy to reverse the potentially fatal effects of fentanyl.”

In an interview, Gualtieri described deputies having shortness of breath and dizziness and passing out.

“I don’t care what they put out,” he said, referring to research and more recent government guidance. “All I care is what happens. People are touching this stuff and having adverse reactions.”

Burton said he took Gualtieri’s word for it.

“The reality is, the sheriff is a leader in this stuff, and I’m going off his request and his research,” he said.

Del Pozo, as a former cop, said he wants law enforcement to succeed and retain public trust. Reiterating myths is an “unforced error, because the science and evidence is so unambiguous,” he said, and it puts undue stress on officers.

Gualtieri “should be relieved to know that his deputies aren’t in any real danger,” del Pozo said.