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Heroin claims 2 more in Pittsburgh

| Tuesday, June 6, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

Police across Pennsylvania are working to identify the source of a recent spate of heroin overdoses and warning users about the unusually strong drug laced with the painkiller fentanyl.

Two people died in Pittsburgh on Monday — bringing the total fatal overdoses here to three since Sunday. At least 36 people have overdosed in Allegheny County since the drug emerged on the streets on Friday, authorities said.

"This is a very serious, major problem and we're going to be seeing it for a while, until the supply runs out," said Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Thomas Stangrecki. "We're doing all we can to get a handle on it and get it off the street."

U.S. drug czar John Walters said that federal agents, working in cooperation with the Mexican government, closed down a lab in Mexico that might be the main source of the fentanyl that has killed heroin users in Pennsylvania and seven other states.

He warned drug users that millions of deadly doses of fentanyl-laced heroin might still be on the streets.

Police are blaming the concoction for yesterday's deaths, both in Hazelwood. Dorothy Iannone, 56, was found dead inside her Roma Way home. Lynn Margavo, 30, of Greenfield, was found unconscious inside a different Hazelwood home and died at UPMC South Side hospital.

Joseph Zielinski, 45, of Verona, was found dead inside an apartment in Greenfield on Sunday, and police have linked his death to the fentanyl-laced heroin.

The heroin has been sold in stamp bags marked "Get high or die trying" and "Dynasty" and sells for $10 to $20 apiece, Stangrecki said.

While Pittsburgh seems to be the hardest hit, the drug also has surfaced in Bethel Park, West Homestead, West Mifflin, Brentwood and Tarentum, police said.

Pittsburgh police arrested five people — dealers and users — and investigators have seen some cases where users overdosed and were revived by paramedics only to overdose again within hours, Stangrecki said.

Pittsburgh EMS Chief Bob McCaughan said he has been talking with state and local health departments and other emergency responders in the region about the heroin crisis.

"This isn't just going to be a Pittsburgh problem," said McCaughan, who is making sure every ambulance has an adequate supply of Narcan, which is used to treat patients who have overdosed.

Five people have been treated at Mercy Hospital, Uptown, for overdoses since the deadly brand began circulating in the area, said spokeswoman Linda Ross.

Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side treated three patients Sunday and yesterday. Another patient was admitted to West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield.

Allegheny General doctors typically see one heroin-overdose patient a day during the summer, said Dr. Fred Harchelroad, chairman of the hospital's emergency medicine department.

"What happens with these people is someone will find them at home or in the street after they've been shot up," he said.

The deadlier heroin now on Pittsburgh's streets poses a risk for both recreational users and junkies, Harchelroad said.

"It's certainly a concern anytime this happens, and people are using a street drug where they don't know what the dosage is or what the concentration is," he said. "Not everyone uses heroin on a daily basis. They can end up killing themselves when they were just trying to get a little bit of a buzz."

Drug rehabilitation programs are trying to warn their patients, but heroin dependency is complicated and drug addicts don't always think rationally, said Rich Takacs, of Mercy Behavioral Health, which provides mental health services to about 500 substance abuse patients each year.

"Even though we have evidence that this is killing people in large proportions, that is not going to be enough for people just to walk away from it," Takacs said. "I wish it were as simple as telling someone they need to stop."

Pat Valentine, deputy director of the Allegheny County Office of Behavioral Health, said the county is relying on community-based substance abuse and addiction agencies to spread the message about the dangerous heroin to those at-risk.

Stangrecki said law enforcement can only do so much.

"The warnings are out there, but if they have a problem and they're determined to get this stuff, they'll do it regardless of whether they know it could kill them," he said.

Law enforcement officials in Fayette and Westmoreland counties reported no heroin-related deaths over the weekend, although police in Latrobe have found two stamp bags.

"We know it's in the area, but we're not sure to what extent," said Latrobe police Chief Chuck Huska.

Heroin has been a problem in Westmoreland County this year. There have been 10 drug overdose fatalities and six were linked to heroin, according to the county coroner's office.

Overdoses and deaths related to heroin laced with fentanyl have spiked across the country.

Federal agents and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reviewing more than 100 fentanyl-related deaths in Detroit since the fall, and 15 people were hospitalized in Chicago last month after using the drug. In Missouri, more than six people have died from overdoses in St. Louis in the past three weeks.

The CDC estimates more than 200 heroin users have died because of fentanyl across the country in the past few months. The synthetic painkiller has tainted the heroin supply in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, authorities said.

This isn't the first time the Pittsburgh area has seen an outbreak of overdoses and deaths due to tainted heroin. Eighteen people died in 1988 when "China White" -- heroin laced with 3-methyl fentanyl -- surfaced in Western Pennsylvania.

In 1999, high-quality heroin labeled "Red Demon" began appearing in Pittsburgh and was blamed for two deaths in Westmoreland County.

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