In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) introduced this bill to ensure that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees and canines are adequately protected against the dangers of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
This legislation unanimously passed the House Homeland Security Committee and was discharged by the House Ways and Means Committee. It has nine bipartisan House cosponsors, including five Republicans and four Democrats.
Of Note: Most of the synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, currently fueling the U.S. opioid crisis originate overseas. As such, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) plays an important role in preventing these borders from cross U.S. borders. On any given day, CBP screens over 67,000 cargo containers, seizing over a ton of illicit drugs in the process. In recent years, the volume of seized synthetic opioids has skyrocketed, increasing by over 400% since 2016.
As a result of their work, CBP personnel are at significant risk of exposure, through accidental inhalation or direct skin contact, to the dangerous chemicals in synthetic opioids. This can lead to accidental overdoses, which can be fatal. Merely two milligrams of fentanyl can kill most individuals, causing death by slowing — and eventually stopping — their breathing.
When available, naloxone (which is an opioid inhibitor), can be administered to treat known or suspected opioid overdoses. It can be injected in the affected person’s muscle or skin, or sprayed into their nose to restore breathing within 2-5 minutes, thereby preventing brain injury and death. Since naloxone only works if a person has opioids within their system (it has no effect otherwise), it doesn’t have any abuse potential.
In July 2019, the Dept. of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector General (IG) issued a Management Alert (OIG-19-53) warning that CBP has failed to “adequately protect its staff from the dangers of powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.” The IG specifically noted CBP’s failure to make medications designed to treat narcotic overdose in case of accidental exposure available, owing to a lack of an official agency policy requiring standard workplace practices for handling fentanyl and methods to combat accidental exposure.
The IG Management Alert further noted that CBP didn’t have a standard agency training protocol to ensure that staff know how to safely handle fentanyl or a standard protocol to ensure that naloxone is both available and accessible at CBP sites.
In a response letter to the IG Management Alert, CBP said that it concurred with the IG’s findings. It also promised to have Narcan (the branded version of naloxone) kits in all its vaults storing fentanyl by the end of September 2019, and to train all its agents on how to use the Narcan kits.
CBP also noted that, at the time of the IG alert, it had already trained over 4,500 officers on how to recognize the signs of an overdose, deployed 3,300 dual-use Narcan kits in the field, and outfitted its storage vaults with safety equipment (including gloves, masks, and Tyvek suits).
It’s unclear whether any CBP agents have been harmed by fentanyl in the agency’s custody.
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: Josh Denmark, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Work Calexico via Flickr / Creative Commons)