Allegheny County continuing “Theraflu” overdose investigation

Published Jan 27, 2014 at 11:28 am (Updated Jan 27, 2014 at 11:28 am)

The Office of the Medical Examiner of Allegheny County is continuing its investigation into the current increase of apparent drug overdose deaths. Over the past five days, a total of 15 probably narcotic overdoses have been identified. The average number of overdoses in that time period is approximately five 5, of which at least half would be expected to involve narcotics. The current overdoses represent at least a two to three-fold increase.

These cases are identified by a combination of a positive history of drug abuse, the findings of drug paraphernalia including stamp bags at the scene of the death and the evidence of recent drug consumption. Several different labels have been found on the stamp bags, including “Theraflu,” “Bud Ice,” and “Income Tax.” A preliminary sampling of the stamp bags labeled Theraflu reveals the presence of fentanyl, a narcotic which can have several different chemical forms of which a-Methylfentanyl is the original formulation. Numerous other similar chemical structures of this molecule are known.

Fentanyl is used commonly for its potent pain control properties by legitimate medical practitioners, often in the form of patches that release low doses of the drug through the skin surface. Occasional overdoses involving misuse of these patches are seen in Allegheny County. Various different formulations of fentanyl are manufactured illegally and can be 10 to 100 times more potent than morphine, the base molecule for virtually all of the known narcotics.

The presence of fentanyl recalls the “China White” epidemics that have sporadically occurred both locally and across the nation, in which some form of fentanyl is either sold as heroin or is mixed with heroin. A local epidemic of fentanyl overdoses occurred in Allegheny County in 1988. At that time, Dr. Joshua Perper was coroner, and a local chemist synthesized a form of fentanyl resulting in 17 deaths and numerous non-fatal overdoses.

The drug chemistry section of the crime laboratories of the Office of the Medical Examiner will conduct further testing on several different types of the stamp bags in order to determine the presence of fentanyl. Simultaneously, the testing of blood and urine samples of the probable overdose victims will also begin.

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