Potent heroin, painkiller mix 'all over Pittsburgh'
The deadliest batch of heroin to hit Western Pennsylvania in more than 25 years killed as many as 13 people during the past week as authorities scrambled to warn users.
The unknown distributors of the drug apparently mixed in the powerful painkiller fentanyl and sold it in stamp bags marked with the brand name Theraflu — the same as the over-the-counter cold medication. The potent combination is causing overdoses and deaths in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties.
“I'm only at the very beginning of investigating the number of deaths,” said Dr. Karl Williams, Allegheny County's medical examiner. His office identified 13 people ranging in age from 25 to 51 whose deaths were believed to be connected to the batch. In four cases, authorities found bags with the Theraflu stamp with the victims.
“It's all over Pittsburgh. It's all over Allegheny County. It's all over the surrounding counties. It's a major regional issue,” said Williams, who with officials in Westmoreland County raised alarms about the drug on Friday.
Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha said his office investigated two cases during the weekend likely to be linked to the batch in Lower Burrell and Allegheny Township.
“They know on the street that this is powerful stuff,” he said.
The drug seems to be “very concentrated” in the Alle-Kiski area in northern Westmoreland County.
“Between us, Armstrong and Allegheny County, there's been multiple cases that we believe ‘Theraflu' is involved,” he said.
Westmoreland officials are workingwith state police. Pittsburgh police are leading the investigation with Williams, city Public Safety Director Mike Huss said.
Police spokeswoman Diane Richard said detectives are interviewing anyone arrested and in possession of the tainted heroin and any witnesses. She said they do not know who is dealing it or where.
“I wish we did. That would be half our battle,” she said.
Fentanyl is a painkiller that doctors say is 100 times more powerful than morphine. When chemists in 1988 mixed it with heroin to make a drug known on the street at China White, about 20 people died, and hundreds overdosed in Western Pennsylvania. A similar batch in 2006 killed nine people in Allegheny County.
“If you're a heroin abuser, you're used to a certain concentration of heroin. If you mix it up with a more potent concentration, and you don't know how concentrated it is, it will lead to an overdose,” said Dr. Bruce MacLeod, an emergency physician at West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield.
The deaths that Williams' office is investigating include seven in Pittsburgh, two in Penn Hills and one each in Aspinwall, Coraopolis, Tarentum and Castle Shannon.
“Sometimes when new suppliers of illegal drugs are trying to get into a new market, they supply a product that is super-concentrated. This is a way of advertising their product, as horrendous as that sounds,” MacLeod said.
Williams said his office handles about 250 fatal drug overdoses a year countywide .
“Fatalities within our system are very rare because we can get to them and revive them,” said City EMS District Chief Richard Linn. During the weekend, he said, Pittsburgh paramedics responded to at least 10 overdoses of suspected Theraflu and three deaths.
Beaver County Coroner Teri Tatalovich-Rossi isn't aware of deaths related to Theraflu. She said the county hasn't seen a spike in heroin overdoses.
“It's been steady,” Tatalovich-Rossi said, estimating that one out of every three or four deaths her office investigates is drug-related.
Williams said his office is testing to determine how much heroin and fentanyl is in bags found with victims and how much is in their body fluids. “It's important to know why these people are dying,” he said.
Linn recalled responding to a call for five China White overdoses at the same shooting gallery decades ago.
“I don't think I've seen anything to compare with the China White heroin,” he said.
MacLeod said it was important to warn heroin users.
“These folks don't deserve to die just because they use heroin,” he said. “They don't want to die from heroin, they want to get high.”
Staff writers Tom Fontaine, Rossilynne Skena Culgan and Matthew Santoni contributed to this report.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Lawsuit: Pittsburgh Public Schools should have known officer was abusing boys
- Transportation challenges rife as Pittsburgh focuses on making fixes
- Transportation funding uncertainty impacts planning for Western Pa.
- McKeesport woman pleads guilty to forging documents to steal from her dying neighbor
- Sto-Rox teachers union upset about possibility of Propel charter school opening in district building