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.