DEA chemists work to detect new, deadlier varieties of opioids

Chemists at the Drug Enforcement Administration Special Testing and Research Laboratory in Sterling, Va., are charged with the task of testing the deadly drugs brought in by the administration's special agents.

DEA Supervisory Chemist Jill Head offers a look inside the DEA lab and discusses the dangers and challenges associated with working closely with such deadly substances in a recent STAT video report produced by Alex Hogan,

"It's impossible to tell just by looking at it that you're handling or encountering one of these really potent, dangerous synthetic drugs," said Ms. Head. "We have to be very careful not to have an accidental exposure in the laboratory."

For this reason, the opioid overdose antidote naloxone is made accessible inside the laboratory.

Chemists within the laboratory regularly come into contact with new classes and types of drugs that haven't been encountered by DEA special agents in the past, according to Ms. Head, Many are manufactured in Chinese laboratories and are chemical analogues of the synthetic opioid fentanyl — a substance 50-times more potent than morphine and responsible for a rash of overdoses across the country in 2016.

"It often happens that in our laboratory we'll identify a new fentanyl type compound that's never been identified before," said Ms. Head.

Synthetic opioids recently identified by DEA agents in the U.S. include carfentanil, an animal tranquilizer 100 times more potent than fentanyl, and 3-Methylfentanyl, which is estimated to be 400 to 6,000 times more potent than morphine.

To watch the STAT video report, click here.

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