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July 14, 2017

Montgomery County reports its first deaths from dangerous opioid carfentanil

Originally created to sedate large animals, the drug is 10,000 times more potent than heroin

A powerful opioid initially designed as an elephant tranquilizer killed two people outside Philadelphia last month, marking the first confirmed overdose deaths from carfentanil in Montgomery County.

A 43-year-old man found dead in a Lower Merion home on June 10 and a 65-year-old Philadelphia man who was transported to Lankenau Hospital on June 13 and later died were both victims of a carfentanil overdose, according to the Montgomery County Department of Public Safety.

Both men had a history of substance abuse, including heroin, officials said.

Carfentanil is often mixed with heroin, fentanyl or cocaine. The drug is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, heroin's chemical cousin, and 10,000 times stronger than heroin itself.

Those who inhale or touch even a trace amount of fentanyl or carfentanil can suffer a potentially fatal overdose, according to the department. Officials warned that anyone who overdoses on carfentanil would likely need multiple doses of the antidote naloxone – known by its brand name, Narcan – to survive.

The statement included a warning to first responders and health care workers who encounter the drug, saying protective equipment to prevent incidental contact is a must.

"In cases where gross contamination of fentanyl or carfentanil is suspected, only specially trained personnel with self-contained breathing apparatus and fully encapsulated hazmat suits should assess and neutralize the threat," officials stated, citing Federal Drug Enforcement Administration guidelines.

Carfentanil, closely related to fentanyl, was created in the 1970s as a sedative for elephants and other large animals.

It was reportedly found in preliminary test results performed on a 56-year-old man who was found dead in West Philadelphia last month. The city's first death related to the opioid was a 59-year-old man found dead in December 2016 in South Philadelphia, according to Philly.com. That man tested positive for carfentanil but negative for drugs commonly mixed with it, including heroin.

Resources and information on Pennsylvania's fight against the opioid epidemic can be found here.