The death of 46-year-old actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has heightened concerns that a strain of potent heroin could hit area streets.
New Castle County Police issued a warning Jan. 31 cautioning residents about heroin that contains the powerful synthetic opiate, acetyl fentanyl.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate acetyl fentanyl is five times the strength of heroin. Other sources estimate the synthetic opiate is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin.
In March 2013, heroin combined with fentanyl caused 14 deaths in Rhode Island, according to a June CDC report.
More recently, Cpl. Jacob Andrews of the New Castle County Police Department said 17 people have died recently in Philadelphia blamed on overdoses of the heroin/fentanyl combination.
“Citizens should be aware of a recent advisory distributed by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health of the rise of incidents related to tainted heroin,” Andrews said. “The heroin is reportedly being cut with fentanyl, which is more potent than heroin and can cause more severe opioid-induced intoxication and risk of death.”
Andrews said the tainted heroin is sold in glycine baggies stamped with various brand names: Thera Flu, Bud Light, Bud Ice, Diesel and Coors Light.
New Castle County has not yet witnessed a rise in heroin overdoses, but Andrews warned because much of the local heroin comes from Philadelphia it's not unexpected.
Sgt. Paul Shavack said Delaware State Police have not recorded any increase in overdoses. Heroin remains cheap to buy and at high purity levels.
“Troopers will continue to monitor the particular brands through our drug investigations and arrests, and continue to investigate and hunt down those responsible for its distribution,” Shavack said.
Fentanyl-laced heroin is not new. In 2006, New Jersey was handling 60 overdoses a day blamed on a batch of tainted heroin, while neighboring Philadelphia and Delaware had significant increases as well, according to published reports.
Jill Fredel, director of communications for the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, said the department is on alert for fentanyl-laced heroin in Delaware.
“I don't believe we've had any suspected cases,” she said.
Formal confirmation through a toxicology screen, however, takes six to eight weeks, she said.
At Beebe Healthcare in Lewes, spokeswoman Sue Towers said there has been an overall increase in heroin cases coming into the emergency room, but they do not test whether other substances, such as fentanyl, are involved.
Actor Hoffman was found dead Feb. 2 in his New York City apartment from an apparent heroin overdose. Published reports say Hoffman was found dead with a needle in his arm and 50 baggies of heroin. The baggies were marked as Ace of Spades, a source said.
New York Police said they are testing the heroin to determine if it was tainted.
Singer Michael Jackson died in 2009 from a drug overdose that included fentanyl, officials say.