Fentanyl in disguise: Expert calls deadly opioid's presence a 'slow-motion chemical weapon attack'

A record 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses and poisonings last year

Fentanyl is more frequently appearing in disguised forms like prescription pills and "rainbow fentanyl."

Unsuspecting victims are also coming in contact with the illicit opioid, which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and deadly in small amounts, on or in everyday objects, according to law enforcement agencies and other experts who have warned of the presence of fentanyl on cash bills and food products.

"You can make a lot of money by doing good — by providing services and food and creations that are beneficial to humanity in all types of ways. ...Instead, [drug manufacturers and smugglers] are participating in evil in order to advance a … method or a movement in order to disrupt the United States as much as possible. It is a slow-motion chemical weapon attack, I think, that's being perpetrated by China and a third opium war," Jim Rauh, founder of the nonprofit organization Families Against Fentanyl, told Fox News Digital.

Rauh, who lost his son to fentanyl poisoning and has since dedicated his career to educating Americans on the dangers of the drug, believes U.S. adversaries are using the illicit opioid to target Americans, and their attempts to do so will get more aggressive over time.

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Families Against Fentanyl founder Jim Rauh, who lost his son to fentanyl poisoning, is pushing to designate the illicit drug as a weapon of mass destruction.

Families Against Fentanyl founder Jim Rauh, who lost his son to fentanyl poisoning, is pushing to designate the illicit drug as a weapon of mass destruction. (Families Against Fentanyl)

Law enforcement agencies across the country have issued warnings about "rainbow fentanyl," or pills containing traces of fentanyl that come in a variety of bright colors to appeal to children and teenagers. The colorful pills are likely an attempt to get younger people hooked on the drug, or worse, according to Rauh.

"The infiltration of the illicit drug supply — I'm very afraid of it being moved over to the food or water. … It just always disrupts society," he said.

Dr. Jake Deustch, an emergency medicine physician at the Mt. Sinai Hospital system in New York City, is trying to advance conversations with parents and schools about having and knowing how to use fentanyl test strips in order to stop an emergency before it happens since fentanyl is more frequently appearing in schools. The majority — or about 70% — of overdoses Deutsch comes across in his profession involve fentanyl, and many of the victims are minors.

A Families Against Fentanyl analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data released in December 2021 found that illicit fentanyl poisoning was the No. 1 cause of death for American adults between the ages of 18 and 45 last year. Additionally, a record 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses and poisonings last year, driven by fentanyl. There are about 150 overdose deaths per day in the United States.

Border agents in Arizona seized thousands of fentanyl pills over the weekend.

Border agents in Arizona seized thousands of fentanyl pills over the weekend. (Northern District of West Virginia)

"Fentanyl is an epidemic in terms of the ravage that it's causing with overdoses. … Just a couple of grains, like a couple of specks of salt as the equivalent, is enough to cause an overdose. So, all forms of fentanyl are devastating, no matter what their color, size or shape. But what this trend is is more intentionally marketing, particularly toward kids, which is particularly concerning given what's happening and the [number] of people dying unnecessarily," Deutsch explained.

In July, California Customs and Border Patrol agents intercepted 100 pounds of fentanyl — in both powder and pill forms — concealed in food containers, including flour bags, ground coffee cans, creamer cans and powdered milk cans.

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"We are seeing a rise in fentanyl smuggling attempts," Anne Maricich, CBP deputy director of field operations in San Diego, said in a statement at the time. "Our officers are working vigilantly to prevent the entry of this dangerous drug. Our field office is also diligently working on mitigating the risks involved with seizing this lethal narcotic."

Experts with New York City's Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor told The New York Post in September that fentanyl comes into the U.S. "with the produce" at the Hunts Point produce market in The Bronx — the largest produce outlet in the country.

In July, California Customs and Border Patrol agents intercepted 100 pounds of fentanyl — in both powder and pill forms — concealed in food containers, including flour bags, ground coffee cans, creamer cans and powdered milk cans.

In July, California Customs and Border Patrol agents intercepted 100 pounds of fentanyl — in both powder and pill forms — concealed in food containers, including flour bags, ground coffee cans, creamer cans and powdered milk cans. (CBP)

Several law enforcement agencies have warned of the presence of fentanyl on loose cash bills. The Perry County Sheriff's Office in Tennessee, for example, announced two separate incidents in June during which dollar bills laced with fentanyl were found on the ground.

"On both occasions, a folded dollar bill was found in the floor at a local gas station. When it was found and picked up, the person discovered a white powdery substance inside. The substance was later tested and was positive for methamphetamine and fentanyl," the sheriff's office said in a Facebook post.

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The Lewis County Sheriff's Office in West Virginia issued a similar PSA in July: "Lewis County Sheriff's Office would like to make the public aware of incidents occurring nationwide of the folded bill fentanyl attack on the public. BE AWARE, BE CAUTIOUS OF THESE FOLDED BILLS THEY COULD CONTAIN THE DEADLY DRUG FENTANYL. This is a very dangerous issue!"

While Deustch has not seen fentanyl poisoning resulting from people touching dollar bills or food products, he did say the examples may be "potential sources for toxicity."

California teen Zach Didier was found slumped over his desk by his father after he had taken a counterfeit Percocet he purchased through Snapchat in December 2020. The pill turned out to be a lethal dose of Fentanyl.

California teen Zach Didier was found slumped over his desk by his father after he had taken a counterfeit Percocet he purchased through Snapchat in December 2020. The pill turned out to be a lethal dose of Fentanyl. (Courtesy of Laura and Chris Didier)

"We're talking about milligrams of powder as a potential overdose, so, yes, if you were in a situation where … somebody had been using something as a tool for their drugs and came in contact with it, there could certainly be transference, certainly if there was anything ingested," said Deustch, who is also an advocate for Signify Analytics, a health- and harm-reduction testing company that provides rapid at-home fentanyl testing strips and kits.

The doctor gave the example of a baby licking something with small traces of fentanyl; even a minuscule amount can be deadly in that situation.

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"When we practice toxicology…we're always thinking about those unusual exposures, so that would be something that's a possibility. In food products, I would assume just the same. If we're seeing a trend that [fentanyl] is being marketed to be more colorful and childlike, certainly, it's not a stretch to say it could be used in food," Deustch said, adding that part of the "allure" of fentanhyl for the illegal drug industry is that it is more easily transported because a small amount is extremely potent, so transporting the drug is easier than transporting other substances.

Some health care professionals, however, have pushed back against the possibility of being poisoned or seriously injured by coming in contact with fentanyl on an object like a dollar bill.

A record 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses and poisonings last year, driven by synthetic opioid — or fentanyl — poisonings, according to CDC data.

A record 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses and poisonings last year, driven by synthetic opioid — or fentanyl — poisonings, according to CDC data. (Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA))

Dr. Stefan Kertesz with the University of Alabama at Birmingham told Fox News Digital that experiencing severe, adverse reactions to coming into casual contact with a small amount of fentanyl powder is a "myth."

"We have a tragic problem with fentanyl overdose in this country, a tragedy. No one with a heart can fathom that over 100,000 Americans died of overdose in the last year, and many of us know families that are affected. Because we feel powerless in the face of tragedy, we are prone to accept simple myths, even if they are dangerous," he said.

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The skin does not immediately absorb fentanyl if someone comes in contact with the drug by touching something, like a dollar bill, that has fentanyl on it, Kertesz explained.

"The awful complexity of facing this problem seriously makes those myths especially attractive. But it is time to put away the myths, support our communities, advocate for treatment, and provide strong supportive environments for teens and young adults so that drugs are not appealing," he said.

Rauh and other advocates have called on U.S. officials to designate fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD).

This post has been updated to include Dr. Stefan Kertesz's comments to Fox News Digital.