BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — Potentially deadly fentanyl exposure is an occupational hazard with some jobs, but a commonly available household cleaner has become the newest recommended tool to battle the drug, thanks to an off-hand comment to the right researchers.
“We were getting small spills,” said Travis J. Worst, an instructor of forensic science at Bowling Green State University.
In the medical world, fentanyl is used as a pain medication, sometimes put on an adhesive patch with the drug absorbed through the skin or as an anesthesia. The primary danger comes from the resulting respiratory depression. Essentially, breathing slows down to the point where the body stops taking in enough oxygen to maintain life.
Musicians Tom Petty and Prince died from accidental fentanyl overdoses, bringing the problem to light for many. Petty had been using the drug to deal with pain from what turned out to be a broken hip, a not uncommon medical practice.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid considered to be anywhere from 50 to 100 times the strength of the opioid morphine. As a powerful synthetic, the illegal drug labs like fentanyl because it can be efficiently created in a lab.
The deaths from illegal fentanyl usage are mounting, but the danger doesn’t stop there. Because it is easily absorbed through the skin, occupational overdose is also a hazard. The Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation counted 17 cases in 2017.
The first law enforcement overdose case Worst is aware of in Ohio was with a patrolman who opened a bag and inhaled the cloud of white powder that puffed out.
In an East Liverpool case, a suspect was believed to have tried to dispose of drugs during an arrest situation. Afterward, some white powder was on the officer’s uniform. Brushing it off, the powder was absorbed through his skin. Half an hour later the officer was in an overdose situation. It took four doses of Narcan to bring him back.
“So it’s not uncommon to see a little bit of white powder left on a shelf,” said Worst. Unidentified white powder on a shelf can happen anywhere, but in a law enforcement facility that could be deadly.
Dr. Jon Sprague, the director of The Center for the Future of Forensic Science at BGSU, put Worst, one of his ace chemists, on the job.
Worst had been studying the “bath salt” drug issue with his assistant, Noah Froelich, an undergraduate on a research fellowship. Worst has a Ph.D. in pharmacology and experience working for both the FBI Counter-terrorism and Forensic Science Research unit and the Chemical and Biological Science Unit, studying anthrax and ricin terrorism situations.
The BCI had been cleaning with a chemical they derived from a research paper written in China, from the perspective of a laboratory setting. “He had done good research, but it wasn’t practical. Lab shelves don’t have a swirling solution,” said Worst of the Chinese paper.
“BCI had been using CH₃ CO₃, which is an expensive chemical compound to order and it’s hard to make,” said Worst. “Creating the solution takes 24 hours to make and it has to be heated.”
Worst describes it as “completely impractical.”
One of the other compounds recommended in the paper was sodium percarbonate, sometimes abbreviated as SPC, an adduct of sodium carbonate and hydrogen peroxide, a colorless, crystalline, and water-soluble solid. Worst calls it a bleach activator.
With a quick trip to the internet, one can order pure SPC from an easily found U.S. subsidiary of a German company, at $98.80 per 2.5 kilograms, or the bulk price of $17.93 per pound.
A quick trip to the grocery store will get you OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover™, sold for $7.56 for 48 ounces, or $2.02 per pound.
“Type SPC into the internet and one of the first things to come up is OxiClean,” said Worst. Sprague had joked that there might be an off-the-shelf solution already out there to deal with the problem. Froelich suggested OxiClean.
Froelich and Worst set up a study comparing an OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover™ solution to water. It worked. They did the tests over time and compared surfaces with a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. While the water left residue on the tested surfaces, the solution did not.
Froelich and Worst’s study has been published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover™ is now also officially recommended in a BCI bulletin for use in the more than 900 law enforcement agencies across Ohio.
“Very clearly the point of the study was to find an effective and inexpensive way of cleaning fentanyl spills so law enforcement, that have potential to come into contact with these spills, now have a safe way to clean it, not getting exposed themselves and possibly overdose,” said Froelich.
“I think that type of study is what the center aims to do. It’s the practical nature of the research, when you get the result that is usable not just by scientists but others. This is the kind of research we want to do in the center,” said Sprague.
Froelich is in his senior year at BGSU and once again putting his dual major in chemistry and forensic science to work with Worst, studying other drug issues.