Science and Technology

Science and Technology

Asking the Right Questions About Synthetic Opioids

Kathryn Coulter Mitchell, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Under Secretary for Science and Technology

Sometimes when you face a monumental task, it just makes sense to make a to-do list. Not only is it incredibly satisfying to check items off the list, but having everything that remains to be accomplished in one place helps to focus the mission at hand. When it comes to the fight against synthetic opioids like fentanyl, we at the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and our colleagues across all levels of government face one of the biggest challenges of our lifetimes. So, we made a to-do list of sorts … or rather a ‘to-ask’ list.

We recently published a new Master Question List (MQL) for Synthetic Opioids to quickly summarize what is known and what we need to learn, so experts can quickly find knowledge gaps and identify solutions, and first responders can have on-hand operational guidance based on the most current scientific understanding. MQLs are versatile resources about current epidemics, biological or chemical in origin, that affect our society. Having current scientifically backed operational guidance and all the outstanding questions in one accessible, and frequently updated, place helps us to focus our research and development (R&D) efforts where they are needed most.

Abuse of synthetic opioids is a national epidemic, devastating communities, endangering public health, and overwhelming response professionals. A very small amount can make a devastating impact in mere minutes—not only to users but also to the responders who tend to them, to law enforcement and customs workers performing searches, and even to postal workers screening incoming international mail and packages, who all may come across the substances. And U.S. Customs and Border Protection fentanyl seizures continue to rise each fiscal year—from 1,400 pounds in 2017 to a staggering 11,201 pounds in 2021. Something must be done, and we are doing our part to help streamline the efficiency of U.S. and global response efforts.

S&T’s Opioid Detection Program and Chemical Security Analysis Center collaborated with our Hazard Awareness & Characterization Technology Center and the Probabilistic Analysis for National Threats Hazards and Risks program to develop the MQL for Synthetic Opioids. Below is a sampling of questions asked:

  • What is the melting temperature of specific synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil? How soluble are these opioids? Responders will be better prepared knowing these physical properties as they reveal in what form they will most likely encounter the opioids (solid, liquid, vapors).
  • How can we establish reliable exposure levels of concern for (at least) the top 10 fentanyl-related substances?  This will help emergency responders protect themselves.
  • What is the best way to wear protective gloves? Gloves prevent opioids from entering through the skin.
  • Which already-available detection technologies work best and how sensitive are they? High-quality technology will help responders better locate concealed opioids.
  • How do cutting agents affect decontamination efficacy? This will help find the most effective decontamination methods.   

The more we know about what we are up against, the better we will be at finding ways to detect it and defeat it. The MQL provides scientifically vetted and consolidated, easy-to-understand information while underscoring remaining critical knowledge gaps to focus investments on high priority and most useful R&D.

S&T has been developing MQLs for some time. An earlier MQL was prepared in 2014 when the Ebola outbreak raged in West Africa. More recently, S&T released an MQL for COVID-19 in March 2020 and an MQL for African Swine Fever in February of this year. Collectively, these resources have been accessed more than 100,000 times by partners and stakeholders across the globe. And we continue to update all these lists as new information becomes available.

We are committed to focusing our expertise and resources on solving opioid-related national security concerns, and the MQL is just one part of that. We continue to check items off of our long list, like funding the development of three standards for the field detection of fentanyl and collaborating with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and industry on a multi-phase study to improve detection of synthetic opioids.

What questions do you have for S&T about our work in this space? I encourage you to visit our Opioid/Fentanyl Detection research page to learn more or contact us via social media at @DHSSciTech on all major platforms.

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