PITTSBURGH - Heroin found at the scenes of at least some of 22 suspected overdose deaths also contained fentanyl, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office said Tuesday, as authorities struggled to address a growing crisis in western Pennsylvania.
Fentanyl, a synthetic morphine substitute up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, is sometimes used medically, but the test results showed a powder form of the drug, which indicates it was produced illegally.
The deadly heroin is believed to have been sold in bags stamped with the words Theraflu, Bud Ice and Income Tax. The test results confirmed fentanyl in the individual dose bags labeled Theraflu and Bud Ice.
“The problem is, there is no opportunity to cry for help. You just die,” forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht said.
According to Wecht, the fentanyl-laced heroin instantly cripples and kills.
"The two of them acting together have a tremendous effect in depressing the brain. The brain gets depressed and that leads to respiratory depression, a slowing of the heart, then cardio-respiratory arrhythmia and depression. The next thing you know, you’re dead,” Wecht said.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said Monday her office was addressing the batch of lethal heroin with state police, Allegheny County Police, Pittsburgh police and law-enforcement agencies throughout the region.
She said authorities were also contacting hospitals and medical examiners to look out for the deadly drugs.
Wecht believes the fentanyl was added by a basement drug dealer who didn’t plan on killing anyone.
“It’s their customers. The last thing they want to do is get rid of their own customers,” Wecht said.
Westmoreland County Detective Tony Marcocci told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he was investigating two suspected fatal overdoses in Westmoreland County.
"There is a killer out there, and we want to try to stop people from using it," Marcocci told the paper. "We are going after the addicts. They can very well supply it to another addict. But ultimately our goal is to go after the sources -- the actual dealers -- whether they be in our county or another county."
The strain has been found by narcotics agents in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Armstrong, Butler, Lawrence and Beaver counties. In addition to the 22 deaths, officials say the drug has produced numerous nonfatal overdoses.
The outbreak has echoes of the 18 deaths and dozens of overdoses in the Pittsburgh area in the late 1980s linked to "China white," a synthetic drug that was sold by itself or mixed with heroin or cocaine.