Workers in hazmat suits tape off a cubicle at the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole office in North Philly after a suspected drug exposure.

A parole officer was hospitalized on Monday after becoming ill from what employees believed to be exposure to synthetic drugs in a state probation and parole office in North Philadelphia, a source close to the matter told Billy Penn, but an internal investigation said the scare was “unfounded.”

The incident comes just over a month after a similar drug exposure at state prison facilities where dozens of staff members and inmates were reportedly sickened by K2, a synthetic cannabinoid.

From the front lines of law enforcement to the checkout aisle at Wal-Mart, fear of inadvertent overdoses has spread across the country as synthetic opioids like fentanyl saturate the street drug market. Medical experts say absorbing fentanyl through the skin is implausible, and that the phenomenon is more likely fueled by hysteria around exposure to unknown drugs.

Shortly after noon on Monday, a PA Board of Probation and Parole staffer was processing a parolee’s belongings at the Glenwood office when they began to feel “nauseous and lightheaded,” the source said. At the time, staffers believed that the parolee’s belongings might have been adulterated by fentanyl. The sickened employee was taken to a nearby emergency room where they were examined and cleared, parole board spokesperson Maria Finn confirmed to Billy Penn.

Agents from Department of Corrections’ emergency response team arrived wearing hazmat suits at the North 13th Street office shortly after the incident, where they taped off the sickened staffer’s cubicle and conducted an investigation.

“There was an incident at the parole office after an agent transported a parolee who was believed to have been exposed to fentanyl,” Finn wrote in an email. “Out of an abundance of caution, hazmat was called. The agent was taken to the hospital and released…and back to work.”

Workers in hazmat suits outside the PA Board of Probation and Parole office in North Philly. Credit: VIA SOURCE

Louis Narvaez, eastern regional director for the PA Board of Probation and Parole, sent an email to employees on Tuesday saying that the department’s internal investigation found the fentanyl claim to be unfounded.

Some staff members were concerned that the office was not evacuated during Monday’s investigation, the source said.

In the email to staffers, reviewed by Billy Penn, Narvaez wrote that he asked safety officials “on more than one occasion if the building needed to be evacuated” and he was “advised it was not necessary.”

Narvaez re-circulated the DOC’s drug exposure protocol to employees in the email.

‘Very unlikely’ to cause toxicity

In the wake of similar incidents across the country, medical experts have stressed the unlikelihood of opioid overdose — let alone a perceived “high” — through the skin.

The American College of Medical Toxicology wrote in a recent report that “it is very unlikely that small, unintentional skin exposures to tablets or powder would cause significant opioid toxicity,” and that disposable rubber gloves would provide ample protection.

Reports of skin-based opioid overdoses, mostly stemming from law enforcement spheres, are more likely the result of “mass psychogenic illness” — a belief that one is becoming sick after being exposed to something potentially dangerous, which often manifests itself in symptoms like headaches, dizziness or weakness.

“Mass psychogenic illness happens all the time. We see it all the time with law enforcement,”Jeanmarie Perrone, director of medical toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told the Inquirer last month. “Police pull someone over and find an unknown substance. Suddenly their heart’s racing, they’re nauseated and sweaty. They say, ‘I’m sick. I’m gonna pass out.’ That is your normal physiological response to potential danger.”

Government agencies do not take reports of mass exposure lightly, however — and the prison system has seen an influx of difficult-to-detect synthetic drugs, according to the Inquirer, and the variations of these drugs have become more powerful and toxic. Out on the streets in Philly, K2 containing fentanyl and other adulterants have been linked to hundreds of hospitalizations and several overdose deaths among drug users.

But among people who simply come into physical contact with these synthetic substances, the consensus remains unclear.

After the Pennsylvania prison exposure in late August, a DOC official called the psychogenic illness theory “moronic.” State officials also authorized a $15 million upgrade on security measures at all of the Department of Corrections prison facilities after the incident, including the implementation of high-tech body scanners and digital mail delivery to curb drug smuggling through “paper products.” The DOC also overhauled its book policies for inmates. Critics blasted the change as cruel and regressive; the DOC said it is trying to keep inmates and employees safe.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...