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Police officers, lab technicians handle fentanyl with care

| Sunday, March 12, 2017, 1:18 a.m.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Capt. Bob Stafford of the Greensburg Police Department holds an empty heroin stamp bag on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. There is an increasing number of drug overdose deaths related to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in Westmoreland County.

Police and drug lab technicians in the Alle-Kiski Valley are trying to make sure they aren't accidentally among the victims of fentanyl-type drugs, because merely touching some of drugs with bare hands can be fatal.

Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams said the arrival of the illegal fentanyl compounds was “life changing” for medical examiners and lab staff.

“We are now keeping Narcan in the lab, and they wear protective clothing,” he said.

The powder often is so fine that particles can be absorbed into humans through the skin pores.

Officers have “stopped using field tests for heroin stamp bags because we don't know what really is in it,” said Upper Burrell police Chief Ken Pate, president of the Westmoreland County Police Chiefs Association. “Fentanyl often looks like heroin.”

Last summer, the DEA issued a warning to police. State police also added a safety component in police officer annual procedure updates.

Field tests have been an important part of presenting basic evidence at preliminary hearings, where a district judge decides whether there is enough evidence to hold charges for trial court.

“Now, officers are testifying about their experience to identify drugs and how the suspected illegal drugs were found,” Pate said.

“Our officers in the county are not routinely using field tests ... — the Narcotics Field Test Kits (NIK) tests, where you put the suspected drug in a vial and it turns color — because of the danger,” Pate said.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

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