Belfast Telegraph

Fentanyl alert: Traces drug that killed Prince found in Northern Ireland

Traces of a drug said to be 100 times more powerful than morphine have been found in Northern Ireland.

Fentanyl is a drug prescribed as pain medication, and in recent years use of the potentially-lethal opioid has risen sharply in the United States and the United Kingdom.

US government figures released this year show a 540% increase in deaths linked to the drug over a three-year period, while there were at least 60 fentanyl-related deaths in the UK in the first eight months of this year.

The drug came to wider public prominence in April 2016 when it emerged that it had caused the death of legendary musician Prince.

The BBC reports that the drug has been discovered mixed into heroin seized by the PSNI.

Speaking to BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme, chief executive of Forensic Science Northern Ireland (a Department of Justice agency) Stan Brown said that besides the sample from the police, his organisation had also encountered four or five reports from the State Pathologist where the drug had been present, although it was not certain it was the cause of death for each of the cases.

Speaking about what makes fentanyl so potent, Mr Brown said: "It is the shape of the chemical, without going into the chemistry about it, it is the shape of the chemical, the way that it interacts, transfers into the brain, into other body functions. And depresses the way things work in your body. For example how you breath, it suppresses the respiratory system."

Although it is yet to be found in Northern Ireland, there are concerns about the possible arrival of the drug carfentanil - a related drug used as an elephant tranquiliser said to be 10,000x as potent as morphine.

Coming into contact in any capacity with a potent dose of fentanyl or any amount of carfentanil - including powder touching a person's skin or being accidentally inhaled - could potentially cause serious harm.

Mr Brown explained that staff combat this by using fume cupboards and wear extra layers of protective clothing when handling the chemicals.

An antidote is also always kept near at hand if someone accidentally comes into contact with the drug.

Mr Brown did stress that the discovery of fentynal was an "early warning" and that the majority of drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland come from the abuse of prescription drugs.

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