War on Drugs

Don't Let Police, Media Mislead You About Fentanyl Exposure Overdoses

Another officer claims to have been laid out just by being close to the drug. That’s not how it works.


Once again, media outlets are rushing to sow panic by blindly accepting a police department's claims that an officer may have accidentally overdosed by being in close physical proximity to fentanyl, reinforcing the false message that you can potentially overdose on the drug even if you don't intentionally consume it.

This time we head to Tavares, Florida, where the Tavares Police Department distributed to the local press body camera footage of Officer Courtney Bannick appearing to collapse and pass out after encountering what turned out to be fentanyl and meth in a rolled-up dollar bill she found in a routine traffic stop.

Local news outlets lapped it up (the story, not the fentanyl) and the video footage ran on WESH (the local NBC affiliate), FOX 35, and elsewhere. In none of the initial stories does anybody so much as question whether what they're seeing is actually being caused by exposure to fentanyl. The officer was wearing gloves, but it was windy, and police argue that it's possible she breathed the fentanyl in. Officers on the scene say they gave her three doses of Narcan. They brought her to the hospital, where she fully recovered. She is now fine.

The Tavares Police Department is very clear that it's releasing the body camera footage for the purpose of scaring people about fentanyl.

"Officer Bannick really wants others to take away that this drug is dangerous," Tavares Detective Courtney Sullivan told WESH. "It's dangerous for not only yourself but others around you. Something as simple as the wind could expose you and just like that, your life could end."

This just isn't true. Add it to the pile of many, many examples of police attempting to convince the public that any possible exposure to fentanyl may be deadly. It does not simply pass through the skin when you touch it. As for the claim that the officer might have inhaled it, a study from the American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology calculated that a person would have to stand next to a massive amount of fentanyl for two and a half hours to feel its effects.

In other words, based on what we know about fentanyl exposure, it is extremely unlikely that what we saw was Bannick overdosing from inhaling fentanyl in a gust of wind.

Obviously something happened—possibly a panic attack brought on by all the insistence that any exposure to fentanyl is potentially deadly. FOX 35 did revisit the story Wednesday with a vague "some say" approach, taking note that there is an "ongoing debate between law enforcement and some in the medical community who say it's nearly impossible to overdose on fentanyl at crime scenes." This is not a "debate." Police keep making claims that medical experts overwhelmingly say are not true.

FOX 35 tracked down a doctor who said that it was, in fact, possible that Bannick could have inhaled fentanyl during that short period of exposure and overdosed. That doctor is not identified and does not appear in the segment.

The good news is that people are publicly pushing back on stories like this. Tweets put out by overly credulous journalists are quickly responded to by people who point out the unlikelihood of what happened.

And yet the story persists. Perhaps police departments believe that these warnings will discourage people from meddling with drugs. They are the ones that respond to these overdose calls and see the impacts. It's clear the Tavares police are hoping that this footage will serve as a public warning.

But when the claims being put forth by the police are easily countered by medical professionals, their efforts are completely undermined and they look less credible. The same holds true for local media outlets.

Whatever the solution to our overdose crisis may be, it's not misleading the public.