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Opioid problem more potent in New York

Opioid problem more potent in New York

State lab sees sharp rise in fentanyl cases
Opioid problem more potent in New York
Forensic scientist Melissa France begins testing glassine envelopes of heroin.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

ALBANY — With the hum of a fume hood going in the background, Chris McDonough last week motioned to 10 small envelopes.

Those envelopes are typically how heroin or fentanyl evidence come to the State Police Crime Lab for testing.

"Usually they're folded in this manner," he said. "Sometimes they're stamped with a logo or branding. Sometimes they're unstamped and just different colors."

Almost all the time, lab workers don't know exactly what they're dealing with until they perform tests on the material, keeping the lab chemists on guard to prevent possible exposure.

Exposure concerns have only heightened in recent years, lab officials said, with a sharp rise in the amount of the opioid fentanyl seized by police agencies in the state as the opioid crisis deeps. Those drugs must then be tested.

Fentanyl is not only dangerous to users, but can be absorbed through the skin, posing dangers to law enforcement and even lab personnel.

fentanyl-finds.jpg

The number of items found by state police lab testing containing fentanyl has risen sharply over the past five years, according to numbers provided.

The state labs saw just 17 cases in 2013. Last year, they saw 209. This year is on pace to more than double that, officials said. 

Cocaine-related cases are still the highest numbers, but Fentanyl is the fastest growing, officials said. The labs see about 6,500 total cases in a year.

"Our trends are all going stable or up," said Ray Wickenheiser, director for the state crime lab system. "This really is the one when you say 'what is the big difference?' It's this."

Police agencies have already made adjustments for the rise in fentanyl. 

A fentanyl-focused investigation in Saratoga Springs earlier this year led police to wear hazardous materials suits while processing a suspected fentanyl drug house. 

Three Schenectady officers reported feeling sick after being exposed to an unknown drug after an arrest in July. None of the three were seriously hurt. In Ohio, an officer suffered an accidental overdose in May after Fentanyl came into contact with his skin.

Lab officials also said they've seen fewer departments field testing drugs, leaving it to the lab to test the substances. 

And that's fine with lab officials.

"We're in a closed environment," Wickenheiser said. "We're in a situation where we can deal with it. We can appreciate that the responders don't have the luxury of that. We know how to deal with it. Our chemists are very well-trained."

The state police have four crime labs around the state where they test a variety of evidence, including firearms, fingerprints and drugs. 

When police agencies seize the drugs, they're transferred to the lab for formal testing. The lab uses a priority system based on the kind of case and where it is in the legal system.

Lab workers then retrieve the evidence from vaults and begin testing. Preliminary tests give the analysts an idea what might be in the sample, McDonough said. 

More sophisticated testing in the form of a gas chromatograph/mass selective detector then breaks down a sample and determines what it's made of. A report is generated and sent back to prosecutors.

Lab officials are constantly reviewing safety procedures. That's part of Margaret LaFond's job as the associate director of drug chemistry.

Among the changes in recent years, she said, is that everything is inventoried under the fume hood.

"Most of the time we get drugs that nobody knows what it is. That's the reality. So how do you handle it?" LaFond said. "We didn't always inventory everything under the hood. But, through the scientific community and forensics, it's clear that this is important."

The hoods go along with gloves, safety glasses, lab coats and other measures and their training. 

And their safety record? They haven't had an issue, Wickenheiser said.

"I think that goes to just how careful we are," he said.

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