Last month, something beyond imagination happened in Southern California: A San Diego sheriff's deputy appeared to overdose simply by touching fentanyl, or perhaps by just standing near it.
The thing that made it so astounding: Medical professionals agree that such a feat is essentially impossible. The thing that made it even more astounding: Several local, national, and international media uncritically regurgitated the claim. This episode is an important reminder that recycling government press releases does not qualify as reporting.
"'I'm not going to let you die': Fentanyl exposure almost kills San Diego County deputy," read a late Friday headline on a story written by The San Diego Union-Tribune, which was printed in the Los Angeles Times. (It has since been changed.) "Fentanyl exposure knocks officer off his feet in seconds," warned CNN. "Police trainee exposed to fentanyl during arrest collapses and almost dies but is saved by partner," said The Independent, a British publication.
The articles were based on a video released by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, complete with last month's body camera footage and one-on-one confessionals with the officers involved.
In it, you see Deputy David Faiivae—who was in training—approach the trunk of a car, where he says he sees a white powder. Shortly thereafter, his arms slightly rise, and he wobbles backward, collapsing on the ground.
"He was OD'ing," narrates Corporal Scott Crane, as the video alternates between his body camera footage from above and Faiivae's from the ground. Crane goes to this truck and gets Narcan, the nasal spray used to treat emergency opioid overdoses.
"I remember just not feeling right and then I fell back," says Faiivae. "And then I don't remember anything after that." He then goes on to detail things after that, like how he was attempting "to gasp for breath."
"I'm trying to not let him go," Crane says. "Like, I'm just, I wanted him to know he wasn't alone. It's an invisible killer. He would have died in that parking lot if he was alone."
It's impossible to know if that's true. But whatever medical event Faiivae experienced is almost certainly not what was presented by the sheriff's department, and later by the media, because the science belies it—something that experts have known for a while now.
"If you have fentanyl powder on your hand for five or 10 minutes, it's inconceivable that that would be sufficient to cause you to have an overdose," David Juurlink, a toxicologist at the University of Toronto, told STAT news in 2017. (For those who are skeptical, here's a video of someone testing that hypothesis.)
But what about particles potentially inhaled through the air? A research report produced by the American College of Medical Toxicology concludes that such an event would also defy scientific scrutiny. The report found that industrial workers who produce fentanyl require 200 minutes of exposure, unmasked, to have 100 mcg of the drug in their system. That still isn't enough to overdose.
"Bizarre. Can't absorb fentanyl through touch," said Matthew W. Johnson, psychiatry professor and drug researcher at Johns Hopkins University, in response to the video. "Deputy likely had a psychological/panic reaction. And then release a PSA video of it? The level of ignorance is amazing." It could have been, for instance, what scientists call the "nocebo effect": the opposite of a placebo, where you panic over a drug because you know or feel it could be dangerous.
The video's closing monologue, delivered by San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, hints at why the department would release the video to begin with. "Fentanyl deaths in California have increased almost 46 percent in just the last year," he says. "The dangers of fentanyl are real."
That's true. But police departments and media outlets need not lean into fantasies to raise awareness. For all the surprise the video elicited, this is not the first time such a narrative has taken shape. "'I was in total shock': Ohio police officer accidentally overdoses after traffic stop,'" a 2017 Washington Post headline reads, detailing a story of an Ohio cop who allegedly OD'd after merely brushing the drug off his uniform. Local media are particularly likely to push the myth. A March headline from the York News-Times of Nebraska reads, "Sheriff: Deployment of Fentanyl reversal kit likely saved deputy's life." There are many more such stories.
I don't subscribe to the belief that journalists have bad intentions when they accept the state's press releases at face value. But it's also not really journalism. More importantly, it has real-world effects. "Concerns about supposed occupational risks of fentanyl exposure to police have been especially persuasive in invigorating hyper-punitive laws, including drug-induced homicide and capital punishment for distributing this supposed 'weapon of mass destruction,'" writes a group of researchers for the International Journal of Drug Policy. "Given the fraught history of U.S. federal government messaging and policymaking in the wake of 9/11, the invocation of this trope is especially telling."
The media's approach to the police is altogether wonky. Critics zero in on journalists' penchant for jumping on police-related stories before having all the facts, saying their coverage doesn't always provide the full context. There's certainly some truth to those claims.
But the reverse—media giving complete deference to the state without question—is also a problem, though it goes largely unnoticed.
It's not exclusive to faux drug overdoses. "'Stolen Innocence' human trafficking investigation in Florida leads to 170 arrests," The Miami Herald reported last November. The only quotes come from law enforcement: "This investigation is a testament to how diligent our investigators work to enhance the quality of life for everyone in this community, especially our vulnerable population," the Tallahassee police chief said.
The problem: The department's report, copied and pasted into the piece, shows no evidence of a purported human trafficking operation as described by the officers. It shows a slew of arrests for prostitution. Nothing in the article interrogates that disconnect. The piece was written by a member of the Herald's breaking news team, which has won several Pulitzer Prizes.