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Fentanyl deaths on the rise throughout Washington

Seattle police have been warning heroin users about dangerous purity levels after several recent overdoses. The heroin may be laced with Fentanyl, shown here. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

The powerful, synthetic opioid fentanyl has been linked to a record 70 deaths in Washington state over the last year, according to a University of Washington researcher.

The new study, which was a joint effort between the university, the state Department of Health, the State Toxicology Laboratory and King County Public Health, noted that use of the drug has been increasing in double-digit percentages statewide — same as it has across the country. Last year, fentanyl accounted for 10 percent of the 680 opioid overdose deaths statewide.

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Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, UW Senior Scientist and lead researcher on the study, said it’s worth bearing in mind that autopsies seldom show that fatalities are linked solely to a single opioid.

“About 70 percent of all opioid overdoses — fentanyl is among them — involve other drugs,” he said. “It’s often the combination that’s the lethal part of this.”

King County accounted for approximately one-third of the statewide fentanyl total. The study identified 53 fentanyl-related deaths in 2015. The drug prescribed for severe pain management and often used with terminally ill patients.

In King County, medical examiner’s office last year linked 22 deaths to the synthetic opiate, up from a total of five in 2015. The number is far more than has ever been recorded in a single year in King County. In an interview in March, Dr. Richard Harruff, the King County Medical Examiner, called the drug’s rising use worrisome.

“Fentanyl is a big concern,” Harruff, said two months ago. But, he added, synthetic opioids still remain far less prevalent in the Puget Sound than elsewhere in the country.

According to Banta-Green, Fentanyl can be 50-100 times more potent than morphine and 30-50 times more potent than heroin. Typically, it is sold as a powder or a pill while the prescription version tends to be a transdermal patch.

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