Police officers in Texas were told some terrifying news on June 26, 2018: Anti-government flyers poisoned with a deadly opioid had been placed on Harris County Sheriff’s Office squad cars, and a sergeant who had touched one was en route to the hospital with overdose symptoms. The incident set off a flurry of media coverage, and it frightened police halfway across the country. The Maine Information Analysis Center forwarded Harris County’s bulletin to local departments, while the Commonwealth Fusion Center wrote its own safety alert for Massachusetts officers.
But it wasn’t true. Three days later, a laboratory analysis found that there was no fentanyl on the flyers. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office blamed the panic on a problem with field test kits.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid hundreds of times more powerful than morphine, is responsible for about half of overdose deaths in the United States. Among law enforcement, it has taken on mythical properties. First responders around the country have claimed to have nearly died from accidental exposure, based on the scientifically inaccurate idea that a deadly amount of fentanyl can pass through human skin or even poison the air around it.
That myth has spread through a surprising avenue: America’s counterterrorism agencies.
Leaked police documents reviewed by Reason show that fusion centers—local liaison offices set up by the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of 9/11—have circulated fentanyl myths, causing police officers to panic and wasting first responders’ time.
The documents were first released as part of BlueLeaks, a massive trove of law enforcement data leaked by the hacker collective Anonymous. Out of 121 fentanyl-related bulletins in the BlueLeaks trove reviewed by Reason, at least 36 claimed that fentanyl could be absorbed through the skin and at least 41 discussed the alleged danger of airborne fentanyl.
FBI officials even claimed that fentanyl is “very likely a viable option” for a chemical terrorist attack in a September 2018 bulletin, although they also admitted that there is “no known credible threat reporting” suggesting that anyone was actually planning such an attack.
The more the myths spread, the more officers in the field panicked, convinced that they had fallen victim to an accidental fentanyl overdose.
Fentanyl is a genuinely dangerous drug. A state trooper in Salem County, New Jersey, fainted and had to be revived with naloxone in September 2018 during a drug bust, according to a bulletin by the New Jersey Regional Operations and Intelligence Center. The officer had touched their face with fentanyl-contaminated hands—likely bringing the drug into contact with the mouth or eyes—and later tested positive for opioid exposure.
But overdosing “from transdermal and airborne exposure to Illicitly Manufactured Fentanyl (IMF) is a near scientific impossibility,” according to the Harm Reduction Coalition.
In other words, fentanyl can’t jump through air or the skin to suddenly kill you.