Three workers at a prison in Missouri are recovering after suffering exposure to the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl, the fourth incident involving the drug at a U.S. prison in less than a week.
Officials with the Missouri Jail in Scott County said three workers at the prison began feeling sick Sunday after coming into contact with a powder that later tested positive for fentanyl, a painkiller roughly 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. The workers were taken to a local hospital where they were successfully treated and released while a hazmat crew was called to the prison, reports KFVS.
A spokesman for the Scott County Sheriff’s Office said the outbreak of fentanyl was confined to a small area of the jail and no inmates or additional personnel were affected. Hazmat crews finished their decontamination of the jail at roughly 8:30 p.m. Sunday and the prison returned to normal operations. (RELATED: Sessions Unseals 43-Count Indictment Against Chinese Nationals Trafficking Fentanyl)
Fentanyl is blamed as the primary fuel of the current opioid epidemic ravaging the country. Only 2 milligrams of the synthetic opioid can cause an adult to suffer a fatal overdose.
The substance caused three exposure scares Wednesday at prisons in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
One incident occurred at Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe, Ohio, Wednesday morning after nurses and correctional officers responded to the cell of an inmate who began to exhibit signs of an opioid overdose.
The apparent overdose exposed 23 prison guards and four nurses to what officials with the Ohio State Highway Patrol later confirmed to be fentanyl. Authorities locked down the cell block for decontamination and said all affected are successfully recovering.
Five workers at the Albion State Correctional Institution in Erie County, Pennsylvania, became sick in a similar incident Wednesday morning after being exposed to an unknown powder, along with two workers at the Somerset State Correctional facility in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
All seven workers were taken to local hospitals for treatment. Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel issued an indefinite lockdown order Wednesday for all state prisons and ordered an investigation into the incident.
“The safety and security of our employees is my number one concern,” said Wetzel, according to NBC News. “Our state prisons, especially those in the western part of the state, have experienced recent incidents in which employees have been sickened and we need to get to the bottom of this issue now.”
Synthetic opioids like fentanyl killed roughly 27,000 people across the U.S. in 2017, up from roughly 19,413 in 2016 and 9,580 lives in 2015, according to a July report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Overall, drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing more than 64,000 people in 2016, according to the CDC. Officials say preliminary data shows drug overdoses killed roughly 72,000 people across the U.S. in 2017.
The epidemic is contributing to declining life expectancy in the U.S., officials say. Life expectancy dropped for the second consecutive year in 2016 for the first time since an outbreak of influenza in 1962 and 1963.