The Thin Line Between Narcotics & Hazmat Emergencies


By Anna Paternnosto, Vice-President, CBRNe Society

In November 2017 a Federal Interagency Working Group coordinated by the White House National Security Council issued the “Fentanyl Safety Recommendations for First Responders” with the aim of educating first responders about the health concerns and the necessary protective actions when dealing with Fentanyl. Concerns about the high mortality rate caused by synthetic drugs ignited debates within the United States concerning the potential weaponization of Fentanyl and its use as a Weapon of Mass Destruction.

The spread of synthetic opioids in the United States has contributed significantly to the so called “Opioid Epidemic” with more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017, out of which 68% involved an illicit opioid or a prescription. The focus has been particularly strong on Fentanyl, a synthetic combination of chemicals often produced in China and 80-100 times stronger than morphine. The high potency of Fentanyl and its increasing abuse within the United States has had a profound impact on the health and safety of the population and represents an emerging challenge for first responders.

It is crucial that firefighters, EMS providers, law enforcement officers and other first responders are properly trained to respond to an emergency involving synthetic opioids like Fentanyl. The upcoming NCT USA 2020 event taking place in Edgewood (MD) on 5-7 May 2020 will provide first responders the opportunity to participate in multi-agency trainings and train in simulated scenarios, including Fentanyl emergency response.

While the United States is fighting against this “Epidemic,” what has been happening in Europe? Are European governments concerned that the outbreak might reach the ‘Old Continent’? Are European first responders aware of the risks of Fentanyl exposure when responding to an emergency?

According to a report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) 11 new synthetic opioids were detected in Europe including 6 Fentanyl derivatives. Deaths related to the use of Fentanyl were reported in Estonia, Finland, Germany, Sweden and the UK. Furthermore, since 2012 23 European Union member states have reported the presence of Fentanyl on their national drug markets. In most of these countries, Fentanyl emerged after a disruption in the supply of “traditional opioids,” making the analysis of future drug market trends highly unpredictable.

Although these substances still represent a minor share of the European drug market, the threat they represent is not to be underestimated. In 2017 in England, reports from post-mortem results suggested that Fentanyl and its analogs had been introduced in the heroin supply in the north of the country. In the same year, Public England issued an alert on the presence of heroin mixed with Fentanyl or Carfentanyl. It is therefore of utmost importance that, just like in the US, European first responders also receive adequate awareness training, including synthetic opioids detection, recognition and exposure control to improve their personal protection.

Although synthetic opioids currently play a minor role in Europe and governments seem to look at the “US Opioid Epidemic” from afar, recent events have showed us that the drug scene can develop very quickly, paving the way for more potent and synthetic drugs. “Traditional” 911 emergency calls can transform into Hazmat situations – responders can unknowingly be exposed to Fentanyl or other opioids during the course of their day-to-day operations. The global drug trade seems to be moving away from plant-based substances trafficked via traditional smuggling routes, shifting towards synthetic drugs manufactured in underground labs which are many times more lethal than the natural-based narcotics.

Unfortunately, this trend can be observed in a more general sense alongside the proliferation of Pharmaceutical-Based Agents, originally intended for legitimate use but now potentially used by state and non-state actors for harmful purposes. During NCT CBRNe Europe 2020 taking place in Rome, Italy, on 22-24 September 2020 the threat of pharmaceutical based agents will be extensively covered in the CBRNe-focused conference stream chaired by BG (ret.) William King, the Former Commander of the US Army 20th CBRNE Command.

Lessons learned from the United States’ “Opioid Crisis” show us that when responding to an emergency, first responders need to be prepared for the unexpected and think outside the box, because an emergency situation might not always be what it initially seems.

About the Author

Anna Paternnosto is Vice President of the CBRNe Society and Director of Governmental Affairs at IB Consultancy. She completed her studies with a Master’s Degree in International and Diplomatic Studies from the University of Trieste, with a Cum Laude honors award in 2015. Her work in the international relations area started at the Austrian mission to NATO in Brussels and has further developed with the start of her consultancy career in November 2015, which led to a specialization and management in governmental relations. Having contributed to the organization of the NCT Event series worldwide since the start of her consultancy career, Anna Paternnosto has maintained links with CBRNe experts and government officials in all ranks, throughout the world.

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