Pittsburgh's U.S. Attorney Is Lying to Cops and Constituents About the Actual Risks of Fentanyl Exposure

Bad science and panics by those who want to escalate the opioid drug war.


U.S. Attorney Scott Brady (Justice Dept.)

A U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania took to Twitter Tuesday to spread fear and panic that any exposure to the opioid fentanyl is potentially deadly, and police officers are in imminent danger whenever they interact with the drug in any way.

U.S. Attorney Scott Brady, representing the Western District of Pennsylvania, tweeted out a link to a release about a federal guilty plea by Anthony Lozito, 40, for charges related to fentanyl dealing in western Pennsylvania. Lozito was arrested in 2017 following a SWAT raid on his home. During the raid, a table with powdered narcotics on it was overturned and some of it was tossed into the air.

All 18 SWAT officers were then sent to a local hospital to determine whether they had been exposed to fentanyl, and they were all fine. Brady painted a very different picture of the incident, writing that "18 SWAT officers…were hospitalized from mere exposure to airborne fentanyl."

Brady's reaction is both typical and mostly wrongheaded. Like nearly all prescription drugs that are made for injecting or swallowing, powdered fentanyl cannot be absorbed through unbroken skin. The same principle explains why you can't cure a headache by rubbing a Tylenol pill on your forehead. The fentanyl patches given to cancer patients, meanwhile, are mixed with other drugs to help the pain reliever pass through the skin.

Yet lawmakers and law enforcement officials are obsessed with the idea that first responders are at risk of an overdose simply by touching or even being in the same room with powdered fentanyl. While it is indeed possible for fentanyl to enter the bloodstream through mucous membranes in the nose and mouth, not one of the 18 officers mentioned in Brady's tweet seems to have actually inhaled the drug. Here's the description by Brady's office:

"Fentanyl exposure is an all too real risk to law enforcement as we learned this morning," said [then-]Acting U.S. Attorney [Soo C.] Song. "During the search of the Bond Street residence pursuant to the search warrant, a table where the drugs were being bagged was overturned causing the suspected fentanyl to become airborne. Several SWAT operators experienced dizziness and numbness. In all, 18 officers were transported to UPMC-Mercy for evaluation before being medically cleared. Quick and professional action by first responders helped avert a potential catastrophe."

As in other reports of first responders who were supposedly dosed with fentanyl, supposedly felt ill, but did not require the overdose reversal drug naloxone, a panic attack provides a better explanation. It's also more understandable one: Cops are being told by their superiors and by clueless reporters that simply being in the same room as powdered fentanyl can kill them. That the people whose doors they're banging down are touching the stuff and breathing the same air without dropping dead is likely lost on them in the heat of the raid. It's certainly lost on Brady.

The reporting of the post-raid panic by KDKA, Pittsburgh's CBS affiliate, reinforced the freakout. Even the chief of emergency services at the hospital emphasized the potential dangers:

"Fortunately, the individuals that were involved this morning were able to get out of the situation right away," said Dr. [Michael] Turteurro. "The big thing that we did for them is we basically decreased the chance that they could be exposed to anything that was laying on their bodies or on their clothes. So the big thing is to get the clothes off them, get them showered, get them decontaminated and then have them evaluated by a medical professional."

Reason's Mike Riggs interviewed Stanford anesthesiologist Steven Shafer back in 2017 to provide an antidote to this panic and explain how these opioids actually work. If law enforcement officials are concerned about accidentally inhaling powdered opioids, perhaps they should consider how they're conducting the drug war and whether SWAT raids with more than a dozen people are actually needed for these busts.

Just last year, Brady wrote an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette encouraging the use of aggressive law enforcement tactics to fight the opioid overdose crisis. It's important for him that the public remains in a state of fear over fentanyl so that he can continue to perpetuate a new front on the drug war. Don't expect those responses to his tweet to have any impact on his thinking.