Fentanyl: Separating fact from fiction

Learn more about the real consequences of fentanyl misinformation and educate public safety partners


On Wednesday, April 27, Simon Taxel, NRP, BA, crew chief, City of Pittsburgh Bureau of EMS, will present, “Fentanyl Facts and Fiction,” at the 2022  JEMS Conference and Expo in Indianapolis.

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We’ve all seen the news reports of public safety responders suffering from so-called toxic exposure to fentanyl simply by being in close proximity to it.

Simon Taxel, NRP, BA, is presenting a session on fentanyl facts and fiction at the 2022 JEMS Conference and Expo in Indianapolis. Taxel is a crew chief and public safety diver with the Pittsburgh Bureau of EMS and a medical specialist on the Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Strike Team.

I recently spoke with Taxel about why fentanyl exposure is a pressing topic for EMS and the takeaways he hopes to impart on the subject.

Simon Taxel, NRP, BA, is educating public safety members about fentanyl exposure facts and fiction.
Simon Taxel, NRP, BA, is educating public safety members about fentanyl exposure facts and fiction.

Unfortunately, Taxel noted, fentanyl is ubiquitous in the illicit drug supply, and it’s here to stay, so now is the time to separate the facts from fiction when it comes to fentanyl safety. Following are 4 things EMS should know about fentanyl exposure and the opioid epidemic.

4 takeaways on fentanyl facts and fiction

Media reports of fentanyl exposure among public safety members are increasingly common. Learn more to separate the facts from the fiction.

1. The risk of exposure is low with standard PPE

These reports of personnel suffering passive exposure from touching fentanyl or a contaminated surface pop up with alarming frequency, Taxel said, but most are rooted in a lack of education and understanding.

The American College of Medical Toxicology and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology both agree that there is extremely low risk of occupational exposure to fentanyl and its analogs for first responders. They state unequivocally that the transdermal absorption and aerosolization and subsequent inhalation of fentanyl are not possible. To date, none of the reported overdoses related to incidental exposure to fentanyl by first responders have been validated with toxicological evidence.

2. EMS can help educate public safety partners about fentanyl safety

Taxel encourages EMS providers to be ambassadors in the public safety community, helping to reach law enforcement partners and spread the truth about transdermal fentanyl risks and safety.

What we really need is institutional level engagement for leaders and organizations to educate members about these hyperbolic reports and on standard precautions – nitrile exam gloves are the biggest things first responders can do to avoid exposure, Taxel noted.

3. EMS can help reduce the burden of the opioid crisis

Taxel noted EMS providers can do even more to reduce the impact of the opioid epidemic by starting or adopting programs to reduce the harm of illicit drug use, educating community members about the risks of opioid overdoses, and providing naloxone and fentanyl test strips in the community.

4. There are real consequences to fentanyl misinformation

One point that Taxel stressed is fentanyl misinformation and hysteria have real consequences:

  • Public safety organizations with already tight budgets may make unnecessary purchases when marketed expensive fentanyl-proof products
  • Hazmat vehicles and personnel can be called in unnecessarily, wasting resources and taking them out of service
  • There are even criminal charges being filed in some cases for endangering law enforcement officers

Education and universal precautions

Ultimately, Taxel wants public safety personnel to know that fentanyl is not a “boogeyman” that needs to be feared. As our friends in pharmacology say, Taxel noted, “the dose makes the poison.” It’s the unknown potency and volume of fentanyl in illicit drugs that makes the substance dangerous to drug users. However, for public safety members who have the right knowledge and use universal precautions, the risk is ultimately low.  

Learn more about fentanyl exposure

Learn more about how to protect yourself from fentanyl exposure and how to separate the facts from fiction about fentanyl with these resources:

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