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L.A. Mayor Karen Bass Claims ‘Touching Fentanyl Could Kill You,’ All Toxicology Experts Disagree

Jody Armour, a University of Southern California (USC) law professor, called Mayor Bass’ claim that you can die from touching fentanyl “a dangerous lie.” Armour and medical experts say that misleading the public about fentanyl overdose can cause first responders and bystanders to back off in situations when someone is actually overdosing from fentanyl.

2:43 PM PDT on August 24, 2023

photo: Brittany Bravo for LA TACO

During a recent interview with KCAL News centered on a “leaked” Metro report revealing that “deadly traces” of fentanyl and methamphetamine were found in Metro train stations, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass falsely claimed that "touching fentanyl could kill you.”

The leaked report found that emergency room stairwells at Metro stations were “heavily contaminated with fentanyl and methamphetamine,” presenting “a hazard not only to the personnel tasked with cleaning the spaces but also anybody entering the ancillary spaces.” 

The report noted that the drug’s “small particle size” means “fentanyl is easily airborne.” 

However, according to all reputable toxicology experts, fentanyl powder cannot penetrate the skin under casual circumstances. And overdosing from inhaling fentanyl particles in the air is nearly impossible, despite news reports published by (mostly conservative) corporate newsrooms suggesting otherwise.

“Mayor @KarenBassLA is wrong,” Dr. Ryan Marino tweeted last week in response to a clip of Bass' KCAL News segment. “Touching fentanyl cannot kill you. All toxicology experts agree.”

Dr. Marino is an emergency room toxicologist, as well as the medical director and founder of an addiction clinic. 

“I have been in practice for ten years in Western Pennsylvania and Northeast Ohio, and so my career has been heavily influenced by fentanyl overdoses and fentanyl use,” Marino told L.A. TACO. 

Dr. Marino says that it is not possible for fentanyl to penetrate the skin “under any accidental circumstances,” telling us that “fentanyl is a lipophilic drug, meaning it can theoretically pass through skin, but it takes a lot of time and effort.”

“Dry fentanyl powder cannot pass through skin, period,” Dr. Marino says.

To get fentanyl powder to pass through the skin “would require a massive amount of fentanyl (more than would be found in a typical bag for injection or insufflation use), a solvent (or a lot of body sweat), and many hours.”

“You can't overdose on fentanyl by touching a doorknob or dollar bill,” UC Davis toxicology expert Daniel Colby confirms. “The one case in which fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin is with a special doctor-prescribed fentanyl skin patch, and even then, it takes hours of exposure.”

“The fentanyl patch is the most optimal delivery vehicle, and it takes 13 hours to receive a 75 mcg dose,” Dr. Marino said.

Marino says that all reputable toxicology experts “agree” that you can’t overdose on fentanyl simply by touching it. 

“It is the position of the American College of Medical Toxicology and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology—the two toxicology professional groups relevant to clinical medicine—that casual "exposure" is not a risk for fentanyl overdose or toxicity,” Dr. Marino explained.

A Wind Tunnel Filled With Dunes of Fentanyl

The report cited in KCAL News’ segment with Mayor Bass also suggested that the traces of fentanyl posed a risk to people because fentanyl is "easily airborne” due to its “small particle size.”

When asked how likely someone is to overdose from inhaling fentanyl particles in the air, Dr. Marino responded: “This scenario is likewise almost impossibly unlikely.”

“People most often confuse the fact that fentanyl can be snorted with inhalation,” Dr. Marino explained. “Fentanyl itself does not aerosolize under normal conditions found on earth, and to do so would require very significant and very intentional efforts.”

In order to put yourself at risk from inhaling fentanyl powder you would have to lay face down or be buried in a “pile of fentanyl powder.” Or find yourself trapped in a wind tunnel surrounded by “dunes” of fentanyl worth “millions of dollars.”

“Then you might be at risk,” Dr. Marino said. “So again, never a risk in casual exposure.”

“While I have to admit that the touch and inhalation scenarios both could be possible under very specific conditions, [in order] to be completely honest and accurate, neither has ever occurred despite years of widespread fentanyl use,” Dr. Marino said. “I would say they are as likely as another possible scenario of having an anvil fall on your head while you are crossing the street.”

Through a spokesperson, Mayor Bass declined multiple requests to sit down for an interview with L.A. TACO or confirm if she still stands by her comment that touching fentanyl can kill someone.

A dangerous lie

USC Law Professor Jody Armour

Bass' assertion that touching fentanyl can kill you drew criticism from toxicology experts, researchers, and constituents last week after L.A. TACO posted a clip from Bass’ KCAL News interview on the website formerly known as Twitter.

Jody Armour, a University of Southern California (USC) law professor, called Mayor Bass' claim that you can die from touching fentanyl "a dangerous lie." Armour’s statement was made during a question-and-answer session held following a screening of the independent documentary film “Reimagining Safety” in DTLA last week.

"This isn't even close, folks,” Armour said to the audience. “This is like being against evolution.”

Armour pointed out that before getting into politics and community organizing, Bass worked as an emergency room physician's assistant and earned a medical degree.

Armour and medical experts say that misleading the public about fentanyl overdose can cause first responders and bystanders to back off in situations when someone is actually overdosing from fentanyl.

“I have seen in real life and real-time people respond to an actual fentanyl overdose and be too scared to approach the patient to resuscitate them appropriately because of the fear of fentanyl ‘exposure,’” Dr. Marino told L.A. TACO. 

Armour said it concerns him that even officials like Mayor Bass are influenced by what he described as a “carceral mindset that has gripped so many of our leaders.”

In recent years, misconceptions about fentanyl overdose have been amplified mostly through sensationalized stories and videos of law enforcement officers “overdosing” when coming into contact with fentanyl or in some cases, simply being around it.

Dr. Marino says that the symptoms seen in these videos are usually the exact opposite of what you see when someone is overdosing on fentanyl or opioids. 

“For example, fentanyl reduces anxiety, it makes people relax rather than panic, and it doesn’t cause things like rapid breathing, increased heart rate, or the non-specific symptoms like lightheadedness and dizziness,” Dr. Marino said in a video posted on his YouTube channel.

Still, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) maintains that fentanyl exposure is a risk to law enforcement officers’ health and safety. And the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that they stay away from it. 

Dr. Marino says the CDC guidance actually comes from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a federal agency under the CDC. 

“They basically assume the worst case possible scenarios to avoid the slightest amount of risk in occupational exposures, and almost always without true supporting evidence,” Dr. Marino told L.A. TACO.

Armour said it concerns him that even officials like Mayor Bass are influenced by what he described as a “carceral mindset that has gripped so many of our leaders.” 

Professor Armour tweeted: “@KarenBassLA is joining the ranks of Black mayors of big cities—Eric Adam’s [SIC] in New York, London Breed in San Francisco, recently defeated Lori Lightfoot in Chicago—genuflecting to cops and spouting demonstrably false copaganda that disproportionately hurts black people.”

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