Police officers in Texas were told some terrifying news on June 26, 2018: Anti-government flyers poisoned with a deadly opioid had been placed on Harris County Sheriff's Office squad cars, and a sergeant who had touched one was en route to the hospital with overdose symptoms. The incident set off a flurry of media coverage, and it frightened police halfway across the country. The Maine Information Analysis Center forwarded Harris County's bulletin to local departments, while the Commonwealth Fusion Center wrote its own safety alert for Massachusetts officers.
But it wasn't true. Three days later, a laboratory analysis found that there was no fentanyl on the flyers. The Harris County Sheriff's Office blamed the panic on a problem with field test kits.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid hundreds of times more powerful than morphine, is responsible for about half of overdose deaths in the United States. Among law enforcement, it has taken on mythical properties. First responders around the country have claimed to have nearly died from accidental exposure, based on the scientifically inaccurate idea that a deadly amount of fentanyl can pass through human skin or even poison the air around it.
That myth has spread through a surprising avenue: America's counterterrorism agencies.
Leaked police documents reviewed by Reason show that fusion centers—local liaison offices set up by the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of 9/11—have circulated fentanyl myths, causing police officers to panic and wasting first responders' time.
The documents were first released as part of BlueLeaks, a massive trove of law enforcement data leaked by the hacker collective Anonymous. Out of 121 fentanyl-related bulletins in the BlueLeaks trove reviewed by Reason, at least 36 claimed that fentanyl could be absorbed through the skin and at least 41 discussed the alleged danger of airborne fentanyl.
FBI officials even claimed that fentanyl is "very likely a viable option" for a chemical terrorist attack in a September 2018 bulletin, although they also admitted that there is "no known credible threat reporting" suggesting that anyone was actually planning such an attack.
The more the myths spread, the more officers in the field panicked, convinced that they had fallen victim to an accidental fentanyl overdose.
Fentanyl is a genuinely dangerous drug. A state trooper in Salem County, New Jersey, fainted and had to be revived with naloxone in September 2018 during a drug bust, according to a bulletin by the New Jersey Regional Operations and Intelligence Center. The officer had touched their face with fentanyl-contaminated hands—likely bringing the drug into contact with the mouth or eyes—and later tested positive for opioid exposure.
But overdosing "from transdermal and airborne exposure to Illicitly Manufactured Fentanyl (IMF) is a near scientific impossibility," according to the Harm Reduction Coalition.
In other words, fentanyl can't jump through air or the skin to suddenly kill you.
The drug can be administered through skin patches, but these patches require moisture and work over a long period of time. Similarly, someone would have to stand near an industrial-sized concentration of fentanyl for more than two and a half hours to feel the effects of the drug through airborne exposure.
The difficulty of overdosing by touching fentanyl didn't stop law enforcement—including the federal Drug Enforcement Administration—from warning the public that fentanyl could be "absorbed through the skin."
Meanwhile, many alleged "overdoses" by first responders seemed to be caused by panic—and the more they happened, the more panic they spread.
One state trooper was responding to an overdose in Sussex County, Delaware when he was suddenly struck by "an accelerated heart rate and light headedness," which turned into "a tingling sensation in his legs," according to an October 2018 bulletin by the Delaware Information & Analysis Center, the state's fusion center.
Rapid heartbeat and dizziness are symptoms of anxiety—not opioid overdose—but the Delaware trooper was rushed to the hospital and "treated" with naloxone.
That was enough to convince the Delaware Information & Analysis Center, which warned officers "to treat all unknown substances as if they could be deadly if inhaled or absorbed through the skin" in its bulletin about the incident.
The Young Physicians Section of the American Medical Association complained in a 2019 resolution that "paranoia" around accidental fentanyl exposure was causing first responders to "waste" naloxone on non-incidents while fearing for their lives around actual overdose victims.
Drug myths were not the only misinformation spread by fusion centers. Fusion centers have called "Don't Tread On Me" flags a sign of extremism, warned that ironic tweets about Florida could "incite" terrorist attacks, and spread bizarre warnings about "radical Islamist tattoos."
A U.S. Senate report in 2012 found that fusion centers had spent up to $1.2 billion to provide "oftentimes shoddy" and "rarely timely" information.
When it came to fentanyl, the War on Terror and the War on Drugs combined to create a toxic dose of misinformation.
The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program operates much the same way as fusion centers—it is a program for sharing information between local law enforcement and the White House drug czar—with much less media scrutiny.
Much of the information about fentanyl in the BlueLeaks dump came from HIDTA's regional Investigative Support Center in Arizona.
Every bulletin about fentanyl from the Arizona office between May 2015 and January 2018 came with a warning that fentanyl "can be fatal if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin."
Bulletins from the Arizona office ended up on the servers of law enforcement agencies across California, including the fusion centers for northern California and Orange County, spreading the misinformation about skin contact to dozens of local departments.
The bulletins also correctly mentioned that fentanyl "can enter the body through the inadvertent touching of the mouth, nose, or other mucous membranes."
The Arizona office finally dropped its warnings about skin absorption in early 2018, as public awareness about fentanyl grew.
"Law enforcement bulletins regarding fentanyl have changed over time," a spokesperson for the Arizona office tells Reason. "Information received by law enforcement over the past five years regarding fentanyl exposure is continually updated."
And the federal government began to distribute better fentanyl safety recommendations beginning in November 2017. The Department of Justice released a video in August 2018 showing that "incidental skin contact" can be safely dealt with using soap and water.
But misinformation about fentanyl continues to frustrate medical professions, as the 2019 resolution by the American Medical Association emphasized.
"Stigma of opioid abuse and overdose has already made first-responders reluctant to intervene in a timely manner when someone is suspected of overdosing," the resolution warned. "Further delays in administration of naloxone in the setting of opioid overdose can have fatal consequences."
The Commonwealth Fusion Center and Delaware Information & Analysis Center have not responded to requests for comment.