Powerful opioid fentanyl blamed for 'alarming' spike in drug overdoses
Drug addict alarmed and listening attentively (Shutterstock)

Federal drug enforcement officials on Wednesday issued a nationwide alert about the dangers of fentanyl, a powerful opioid often used to increase the potency of heroin and blamed for an "alarming" spike in deadly overdoses.

Fentanyl, a prescription drug used as an anesthetic and pain reliever for terminally ill patients, is being illegally produced in underground drug labs for street narcotics, said Barbara Carreno, spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

"It gives dealers a more potent product, since fentanyl is so strong," Carreno said. "Just like any other business, they are competitive and they want people to want to buy and distribute their product. The flip side is that this more potent drug is killing people."

Even a tiny amount of fentanyl can be lethal, since it is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and as much as 50 times more powerful than heroin, the DEA said.

“Drug incidents and overdoses related to fentanyl are occurring at an alarming rate throughout the United States and represent a significant threat to public health and safety,” DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said in a statement.

Because fentanyl is easily absorbed through the skin and can be accidentally inhaled as an airborne powder, it is particularly dangerous to law enforcement officers involved in buy and bust operations, the DEA said.

"It takes very little for someone to overdose on it, to cause the level of respiratory depression that would cause you to die," Carreno said.

In the last two years, there have been an increasing number of drug busts for fentanyl, with 3,344 instances reported in 2014, compared to 942 instances in 2013.

Fentanyl from Mexican drug trafficking organizations was seized in busts took place in the U.S. Northeast and in California, the DEA said.

Recently, fentanyl overdoses have accounted for four deaths in New Hampshire over two months, 80 deaths in six months in New Jersey, and 200 deaths in 15 months in Pennsylvania.

It's a scourge last seen in the United States between 2005 and 2007, when more than 1,000 deaths in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and other cities were attributed to fentanyl.

"The source of that fentanyl was traced to a single lab in Mexico. When that lab was identified and dismantled, the surge ended," the DEA said.

It said the current outbreak affects a wider geographic area and an array of new and experienced drug abusers.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Lisa Lambert)