Urban legend perpetuates use of hazmat suits in fentanyl cleanups

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

As the opioid epidemic continues to surge, cleaning companies in Philadelphia have started offering a fentanyl decontamination service.

While regular cleanups might run you $30 an hour, bringing fentanyl into the picture can increase the cost tenfold or more. According to local proprietors, total payment for the service can bump up against $50,000 per session.

Medical experts say the service is a total rip-off — and perpetuates a debunked myth that accidental exposure to the synthetic opioid can cause an overdose.

Fentanyl is a dangerous component of Philly’s addiction epidemic. The synthetic opioid is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and its rising popularity in the region has caused more fatalities. In 2017, fentanyl was present in 84 percent of the city’s overdose deaths.

As dangerous as the drug is to ingest, medical experts say it’s virtually impossible to do so accidentally. Contrary to legend, fentanyl cannot be absorbed through the skin (barring prolonged, extensive exposure), nor can it dissolve into the air to be breathed in.

In fact, doctors argue the myth itself is more dangerous than any accidental exposure.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist at Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine, about the high-ticket scrubdowns. “That is some real serious scamming. That’s probably the worst I’ve heard.”

Hazmat suits unnecessary, experts say

Donna Allie has been in the commercial cleaning biz for 34 years. She’s president of Philly janitorial services company Team Clean, which sanitizes everything from office spaces to crime scenes.

She hasn’t gotten a call for one yet, but Allie recently began offering fentanyl cleanings. She was trained in the decontamination method from her partner company, New Jersey-based Emergi-Clean, which records five to six of the specialized scrubs every year.

A standard, opioid-free session with Team Clean will run you $22 to $40 an hour. But if fentanyl’s involved, the charge can jump as high as $400 an hour. Depending on the size of the space, Allie said that’ll run a final tab between $30,000 and $50,000.

“Imagine if you went into a restaurant bathroom, and somebody went in before you and had a fentanyl overdose,” Allie said. She continued, perpetuating the fable she’d been told: “If you come in afterward and touch the surface, just a teeny grain can get into you and cause an overdose.”

Powder fentanyl cannot be absorbed through the skin, according to research from the American College of Medical Toxicology. Liquid fentanyl can, but it takes being doused — at least 14 straight minutes of exposure, spread out over 17,000 square centimeters of the human body. In other words, about 80 percent of your skin’s surface submerged in fentanyl for about a quarter of an hour.

Emergi-Clean CEO Scott Vogel also charges a hefty sum for the service. He recalls a $20,000 job he completed in a Delaware Valley apartment contaminated with fentanyl.

When working with the synthetic opioid, Vogel said he and his employees follow the Department of Labor’s standards for hazardous waste operations. The federal guidelines mandate the use of equipment like hazmat suits and high-power vacuums — plus expensive decontamination and disposal practices.

“You’re not dealing with ketchup or syrup. You’re dealing with something where by touching it, you can physically OD,” Vogel alleged.

But a Department of Labor spokesperson confirmed to Billy Penn that fentanyl does not qualify as a hazardous waste — unless it’s involved in some sort of unusual emergency, like a large spill or a tank rupture.

Recommendations from the National Association of EMS Professionals specifically state that hazmat suits are not necessary for dealing with fentanyl.

Guidelines created by the American College of Medical Toxicology say that for people working directly with fentanyl, a pair of standard rubber gloves and a surgical mask will do the trick. In extreme cases, they say you can slap on a pair of water-resistant coveralls and a respirator. All that equipment is available at most hardware stores.

“People worry it can just be blown down your nose,” said Marino, the toxicologist. “That wouldn’t occur unless you’re standing in a wind tunnel with dunes of fentanyl around you.”

He added: “Why would people inject the drugs on the street if you could just stick your hand in it?”

Accidental overdose reports spread ‘boogeyman’ myth

Fentanyl hysteria has been around nearly as long as the opioid epidemic itself. For the last few years, everyone from law enforcement agents to everyday Walmart shoppers have described fearing for their lives due to inadvertent overdoses.

“Hearing repeatedly that people are dying from fentanyl at unprecedented rates has given it kind of bogeyman characteristics,” Marino said.

Amid relentless and often uncritical press coverage of these reported overdoses, medical experts say the more likely explanation is psychological. Symptoms such as sickness or dizziness that you experience after being near fentanyl are more likely due to severe anxiety, they say.

In his emergency department in Cleveland, Marino said he regularly treats patients who believe they’re suffering from accidental fentanyl exposure.

“People have these dramatic reactions where they end up having to go to the hospital,” he said. “They’re having a panic attack that’s very real, but it’s not from the drug.”

In October, a Philly parole officer was hospitalized after reportedly becoming ill from what fellow employees believed to be exposure to a synthetic drug at a North Philadelphia facility. A hazmat team arrived to investigate. Officials later ruled the scare was “unfounded.”

“There was an incident at the parole office after an agent transported a parolee who was believed to have been exposed to fentanyl,” parole board spokesperson Maria Finn told Billy Penn 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.”

Marino is frustrated by the myth. He said it puts people who use drugs in more danger, because if folks think they’ll get sick just by touching fentanyl, then they might not step in to help if they see someone overdosing.

“People who overdose, it’s a time-critical situation of life or death,” Marino said. “If someone isn’t willing to go touch them, or they spend time getting in hazmat gear, that leads to more deaths.”

Avatar photo

Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...