A legal, supervised injection site (SIS) affiliated with Vancouver Coastal Health found 86% of drugs tested with strips contained fentanyl when tested with these medical lab test kits

Here’s an unexpected application of point-of-care testing (POCT) that may surprise pathologists and medical laboratory leaders. In a sort of “guerilla-warfare” street experiment that applies diagnostic technologies to a problem, the manager of a needle-exchange program in the Bronx has been helping heroin and other opioid users discover if a product they are about to ingest is contaminated by handing out test strips designed for testing urine.

The addicts participating in these special programs use the POCT urine test strips to test their drugs for the presence of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic similar to morphine that can increase the potency of opioids to lethal levels. Rehab program directors adopted this approach to help prevent overdoses and deaths among drug users.

Reducing Overdoses with Test Strip Handouts

Opioids such as morphine are often prescribed to cancer or surgery patients to treat severe pain. However, according to a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) fact sheet, fentanyl is “50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.” When fentanyl is mixed with heroin or cocaine and sold on the streets, the potent mix can be deadly, NIDA explained.

Test strips ordered from Canada designed to check patients’ urine for fentanyl are being used by St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction (St. Ann’s) in the Bronx, New York. The strips are being used to check drug users’ syringes for fentanyl, according to a National Public Radio Shots article. The idea is to inform drug users of what they have in hand and possibly encourage them to choose not to take the drug, use less, or slow things down, Shots reported.

“If you’re doing dope, we’ll give you a test strip so you can test and see if there’s fentanyl,” stated Van Asher, Data Manager at St. Ann’s, in the Shots article.

Whether an unlicensed individual distributing test strips to drug users violates state or federal regulations was not broached in the Shots article.

St. Ann’s gives out about 15 strips a day each costing $1, Shots noted. St. Ann’s staff is sharing data collected on the encounters with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and with New York health departments.

Finding Fentanyl with Test Strips in Canada

St. Ann’s isn’t the first to use urine test strips for drug checking. Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) in British Columbia, Canada, launched a pilot program for drug-checking in 2016 at its Insite facility.

Insite is a supervised injection site (SIS). It opened its doors in 2003 and operates under a constitutional exemption to Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

At Insite’s “supervised injection site” facility (above) in Vancouver, British Columbia, drug users can “legally” inject illegal drugs. Directors of this program have adapted point-of-care urine test kits typically used in medical laboratory testing to allow drug users to test their heroin and opiate drugs for the presence of fentanyl. The goal is to reduce overdoses and deaths from users unknowingly ingesting fentanyl. (Photo copyright: CBCNews.)

 

Insite began to test drugs for the presence of fentanyl in the fall of 2016. Data from 173 tests performed in July and August found that 86% of drugs tested contained fentanyl, noted a VCH news release.

“These initial results confirm our suspicion that the local drug supply is overwhelmingly contaminated with fentanyl. We’re hoping this information can help people who use drugs,” stated Mark Lysyshyn, MD, MPH, VCH Medical Health Officer and Professor of Medicine at University of British Columbia.

The test works when the client dilutes the substance with a few drops of water. A positive or negative result for fentanyl is revealed within seconds.

The test strip used by Insite was designed to check for fentanyl in urine, not for checking drugs, noted the VCH statement. Insite intends to review the pilot program test data and decide whether to continue testing services after the pilot program concludes.

Alexander Walley, MD, Director of the Addiction Medicine Fellowship Program and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Boston Medical Center, stated the test may aid users’ decision-making.

“Even when they know they’re going to be positive for fentanyl, the experience of somebody testing their drugs and seeing that it’s fentanyl has an impact. It really encourages them to use more safely,” he stated in the Shots article.

Overdose Deaths Due to Fentanyl in America

A CBC News, Manitoba, article called the death rate due to fentanyl ingestion a “Canada-wide disaster.” However, the problem is significant in the US as well.

Death rates from synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, rose more than 72% from 2014 to 2015 in the US, according to the CDC.

In New York City, fentanyl is increasingly being linked to overdoses. In 2016, nearly half (44%) of drug deaths involved drugs mixed with fentanyl. That’s a 16% increase over 2015, according to a NYC Health press release.

A report from the Tennessee Department of Health noted that 1,451 people died from drug overdose in 2015. That’s a state record. Deaths associated with fentanyl rose significantly from 69 in 2014 to 174 in 2015, the report noted.

How Fentanyl Works and Why It Is Dangerous

Here are some fentanyl facts from the NIDA:

  • Fentanyl works by binding to opioid receptors located in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions;
  • People may experience side effects such as euphoria, drowsiness, nausea, confusion, addiction, respiratory arrest, unconsciousness, coma, and death;
  • Increased risk of overdose exists when drug users are unaware a drug they are ingesting contains fentanyl.

Clinical laboratory directors and pathology groups nationwide might want to follow the progress of test strip services at St. Ann’s Corner and Insite’s SIS. This twist on traditional POCT—using urine test strips to look for the presence of fentanyl in substances—could aid their own communities achieve public awareness, change behaviors, and save lives.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

An Experiment Helps Heroin Users Test Their Street Drugs for Fentanyl

86% of Drugs Checked at Insite Contain Fentanyl

Fentanyl Deaths Are a Canada-wide Disaster

5 New Supervised Injections Sites Coming to Fight Vancouver’s Fentanyl Overdose Crisis

1,451 Tennesseans Die from Drug Overdoses in 2015

State Data Confirms Overdose Deaths Primarily White Opioid Users