Fentanyl Sickens Employees in Separate Incidents

21 Mar, 2023 Liz Carey


Hackensack, NJ (WorkersCompensation.com) – Fentanyl is moving into the workplace, incidents across the country this past week show. 

In Hackensack, N.J., officials said five women who were employees of the Shops at Riverside were found overdosed in the mall’s parking lot. First responders said they were able to revive the women using Narcan and CPR. Four of the five women were taken to a local hospital, but a fifth refused.  

According to a press release by the Hackensack Police Department, police suspect the women took fentanyl. They were found unresponsive in the lower level parking garage.  

Fentanyl is a highly potent synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. A lethal dose of fentanyl can be very small. Because it often is often used in other drugs to increase their potency, fentanyl has become one of the leading causes of drug overdose deaths across the country.  

“I want to assure the community that we are already in the process of thoroughly investigating this matter to find the source of this dangerous substance, and will do everything within our power to prosecute those responsible to the fullest extent of the law,” Hackensack Police Department Officer in Charge Capt. Michael Antista said in a statement.  

Spokespeople for the mall could not immediately be reached Thursday night. 

Earlier this month, a bus driver in Seattle said his health issues were caused by fentanyl exposure from passengers, and that doctors were refusing to treat him because his claim that it was work related would not be accepted.  

“I really hadn’t ever heard of fentanyl smoking on the bus when I was hired by Metro,” Williams told KOMO News. “I don’t want to be put in a predicament where I’m around drugs every day on my job – I didn’t sign up for that.” 

According to King County Metro data, there were 1,885 reports of drug use on the bus system in 2022. As many as 52 bus operators reported being exposed to drug smoke and 16 operators filed workers compensation claims, KOMO reported. 

Local health officials said the smoke does not have the same effects as the drug, and that it is not particularly dangerous.  

“When someone smokes fentanyl, most of the drug has been filtered out by the user before there is secondhand smoke,” Dr. Scott Phillips, the medical director of the Washington Poison Center said in the department’s blog. “It doesn’t just sort of float around … there’s no real risk for the everyday person being exposed to secondhand opioid smoke.” 

During a King County Metro meeting last year, a health department representative said facts about second-hand fentanyl smoke are often misrepresented or misreported.  

“It’s important to note when you see fentanyl reporting that you take a really take a critical eye because there is a lot of misinformation out there,” said Thea Oliphant-Wells, a social worker for Seattle & King County Public Health. “We’re not seeing folks developing second hand exposure, this is just not happening. Not to say that it could never happen, but we’re not seeing it.” 

King County Metro told KOMO that it is doubling its security staff to address safety issues, including drug use.  

"Metro is improving safety for both employees and customers. Drug use is prohibited on transit, and we are doubling our transit security staff to 140 officers with Council support," a Metro spokesperson said in a statement. 

And in Syracuse, several fire fighters, first responders and emergency department workers were sickened after two residents of an apartment complex were found dead. While the police thought the cause may be related to fentanyl, health officials aren’t so sure.  

On March 1, Syracuse Fire Department personnel responded to a report of unresponsive individuals at Brighton Towers. Once there, the fire fighters found two deceased individuals and another critically ill patient. The patient was transported to a local hospital for treatment.  

However, due to the deaths, police remained on the scene. Within a half hour, three officers reported feeling ill and requested EMS and fire return to the scene. Additionally, a fire fighter who had originally responded to the scene also fell ill. Symptoms ranged from nausea to an elevated heart rate. All four were taken to a nearby hospital. 

 Once at the hospital, the first responders were decontaminated and treated for their symptoms. While they were there, six staff members at the hospital’s emergency room also reported feeling ill, police said.  

Police said in response the emergency room was shut down and evacuated. Officials also ordered the evacuation of the apartment building.  

Spokesmen for the fire department said fentanyl was found on the two deceased men.  

But an emergency room doctor with Upstate University Hospital said there’s no evidence the drug was responsible for the illnesses described by the first responders and emergency personnel.  

Dr. William Paolo, Upstate’s chief of emergency medicine, said he helped lead the response from the overdoses at Brighton Towers. 

Paolo told the Syracuse Post-Standard that none of the symptoms experienced by the first responders or hospital staff indicated fentanyl exposure. The emergency personnel experience increased heart rate, the opposite of what fentanyl does to the body, he said. Opioids, like fentanyl, slow a person’s heart rate and breathing down, he said.  

Paolo said, “it’s very hard, if not impossible, to attribute their illnesses to powdered fentanyl.” 

Investigators are working to determine what may have sickened the first responders and hospital staff. 

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    About The Author

    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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