Fentanyl exposure: myths, misconceptions, and the media

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Fentanyl exposure: myths, misconceptions, and the media

14 June 2024
The Center for Just Journalism

The purpose of this report is twofold: to critically examine a breakdown in journalistic standards surrounding the viral phenomenon known as “fentanyl exposure” and to improve future reporting on this and related issues.

Fear of exposure to the synthetic opioid fentanyl first spread through the ranks of police and has since been broadcast to the public through hundreds of dramatic, sensational, and factually inaccurate news reports. Despite numerous refutations and debunkings, news reports continue to claim that police officers around the country suffer grave symptoms, including overdose, after passive, incidental contact with fentanyl. 

Fentanyl is indeed a potent opioid responsible for tens of thousands of deaths annually. And small doses can be deadly. But the dangers of touching fentanyl or being in its presence have been greatly exaggerated by police and the news media, contributing to a distorted public perception that carries real world consequences. 

Misconceptions about fentanyl’s properties could result in delayed rescue breathing and aid to overdose victims, unnecessary stress and panic among police officers, wasteful budget expenditures and resource allocation, and excessively harsh and punitive criminal charges that do little to prevent substance use or substance-related harms.

If fentanyl is not the cause of the symptoms experienced by police officers, then what is? The overwhelming consensus among medical and toxicological experts points to fear and panic as the main culprits. Police authorities and the news media have widely reported that touching a small amount of fentanyl is dangerous, leading officers to fear the substance and experience the symptoms they expect would occur. Researchers refer to this as the “nocebo effect,” and many suggest it explains the officers’ symptoms, which are more consistent with a panic response than an opioid overdose. Potent opioids like fentanyl are central nervous system depressants, producing symptoms such as slow and shallow breaths, while police officers exhibit symptoms like rapid breathing and tingling extremities that indicate anxiety and panic.