2 deaths in Cook County linked to never-before-seen opioids

CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) - A Chicago man and a northwest suburban resident died of overdoses of powerful opioids that had never before been seen in Cook County, officials said Friday.

They were the first deaths in Cook County linked to those specific “fentanyl analogs,” though there has been a spike in deaths caused by fentanyl and other similar opioids this year, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

On Sept. 10, a 46-year-old West Side man died from a lethal combination of fentanyl analogs, including Carfentanil.

These “were not pharmaceutical-grade drugs like those administered by medical professionals for severe pain.  … Carfentanil is a fentanyl analog that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine, which is the active component of heroin. Carfentanil is used in veterinary practices to immobilize large animals,” according to a statement from Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, chief medical examiner.

Toxicology testing has also shown that a 35-year-old Lake Zurich man who died June 8 suffered a 3-methylfentanyl overdose, the medical examiner’s office found.

“3-Methylfentanyl is also a fentanyl analog and it is four times more potent than morphine,” according to Arunkumar.

While the deaths were the first from those specific opioids, they were just part of disturbing and deadly trend.

“Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, like carfentanil, are very powerful drugs that are likely to be lethal,” Arunkumar said. “Just one dose can easily stop a person from breathing, causing immediate death.”

Carfentanil is an elephant tranquilizer, according to Dr. Steve Aks, emergency physician and toxicologist at Cook County Health & Hospitals System’s Stroger Hospital.

“It is not a drug that humans should be ingesting. These high-potency opioids and opioid analogs are thousands of times stronger than street opioids like heroin and are far more likely to cause death,” Aks said in the statement.

There have been 380 deaths so far in 2016 caused at least in part by fentanyl or fentanyl analogs, according to the medical examiner’s office. That number is likely to rise because it can take three months for test results to be finalized.

But that number is already a nearly 300 percent increase from 2015, when 102 deaths were linked to fentanyl or fentanyl analogs. In 2014 there were only 20 such deaths, according to the medical examiner’s office.

Medical examiners began testing for fentanyl routinely starting in June 2015 to keep up with national trends showing a spike in their use. Previously such tests were run at the discretion of the pathologist if the circumstance of the case–such as an unknown substance found in a decedent–called for it.

Such tests have shown that decedents “used fentanyl alone, with heroin, and with other drugs such as cocaine,” according to Arunkumar.

The most common such opioids found in overdose victims in Cook County have been furanyl fentanyl and a precursor/metabolite of fentanyl called despropionyl fentanyl (4-ANPP), according to the medical examiner’s office.