BPD overdose response involves hazmat team, prompts criticism from experts

Harm reduction workers and addiction researchers say there's virtually no way to overdose by simply touching the deadly drug fentanyl. Boston police just brought hazmat gear to a drug call, anyway.

An edited photo shows a man in a hazmat suit with a map of Boston in the background marked with the approximate site of a hazmat overdose response on New Year’s Eve

A pair of drug overdoses in a Brighton hotel prompted a hazmat response on New Year’s Eve, the Boston Globe reports.

Now, addiction experts are speaking out, saying these kinds of response promote misunderstandings of the dangers of certain hard drugs, while also delaying potentially lifesaving emergency treatment. 

“I thought everyone had gotten the memo: you do not need hazmat for fentanyl,” Maggie Beiser of the non-profit Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program tweeted following media coverage of the incident. 

“You need Narcan, likely further medical care, and universal precautions,” she elaborated. 

According to the Globe, police arrived at the Charles River Inn shortly after 5pm following reports of two people overdosing on a still unknown substance. 

Emphasizing that toxicology reports remained pending as of press time, Police Spokesperson Stephen McNulty told the Globe that a hazmat response ensued due to fears of the deadly drug fentanyl. 

Those fears, people like Beiser argue, may well be unfounded. 

Fentanyl is more than 30 times more potent than common street opioids like heroin.

It is responsible for ongoing surges in overdose deaths. 

But overdosing by simply touching the drug is nearly impossible, according to multiple papers, media reports, the American College of Medical Toxicology and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology.

“Fentanyl panic has harmed public health through complicating overdose rescue while rationalizing hyper-punitive criminal laws,” one paper by a quartet of Boston researchers argued back in September. “...Fentanyl panic has real-world consequences.”

Northeastern researcher Leo Beletsky, who was credited on that paper, as well as a separate publication on a similar topic just a month earlier, has said unnecessary hazmat precautions delay vital responses like the administration of Narcan or rescue breathing to unconscious victims of overdoses.

As Beiser argued online, this recent incident in Brighton almost certainly involved those kinds of delays as responders deemed a hazmat response necessary.

Boston Police have not responded to a public records request for more information. 

A police spokesperson, likewise, has also not responded to a subsequent list of questions sent by email regarding department policy on use of hazmat equipment in situations involving fentanyl. 

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