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Fentanyl seizures at southern border puts CBP agents at risk

In a report dated July 16, 2019, the Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General issued a management alert, citing the Customs and Border Patrol for not adequately providing enough protection from possible exposure to fentanyl.

The issue came up during an audit of Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) storage of seized drugs at permanent drug vaults visited by the IG’s staff. There are 62 vaults where seized drugs are stored, and in some cases, drugs can sit in the vaults for years while the cases are being prosecuted.

The CBP’s Office of Field Operations (OFO) is tasked with the storage, management, and disposal of seized property, including illicit drugs such as fentanyl. The secure storage of illegal drugs is well covered in the standard operating procedures of the agency.

A Naloxone lock-box used by CBP agents.

A Naloxone lock-box used by CBP agents.
OIG/Department of Homeland Security

When the vaults were being audited, it was found that many CBP agents handling the powerful narcotic didn’t have access to naloxone, also known as Narcan, the drug that reverses the effects of an overdose.

According to the IG’s report, CBP has not always made naloxone available to treat its staff in cases of exposure to opioids. During the audit, seven of the vaults visited contained fentanyl. However wo of the vaults did not have naloxone, and an officer at one of the vaults had never heard of it.

The other five vaults contained naloxone, but two of the five had it locked in boxes with codes. One of the two vaults containing naloxone also contained the largest recent seizure of fentanyl in CBP history. Staff had taped a piece of paper bearing the code to this vault on the wall next to the lock-box. However, when asked to open the lock-box at the other vault, staff could not open it because they could not remember the code.

“With the recent rise in fentanyl seizures, CBP staff now routinely handle fentanyl more than ever,” according to the IG report. “However, without easy access to naloxone in case of exposure, CBP is unnecessarily jeopardizing the lives, health, and safety of its staff.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the Nogales Commercial Facility seized nearly  254 po...

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the Nogales Commercial Facility seized nearly 254 pounds of fentanyl with a value of approximately $3.5 million from a Mexican national when he attempted to enter the United States in January 2019.
Customs and Border Patrol

ABC News is reporting that in a letter, the CBP said it concurred with the IG’s findings and promised that by the end of September all its vaults storing fentanyl will have Narcan kits and that its agents will be trained in how to use them.

The CBP has seen a huge rise in the number of Fentanyl seizures in the past several years – from 70 pounds in 2015 to 3,500 pounds so far in this budget year. Keep this figure in mind – the DEA says there are 453,592 milligrams in a pound of fentanyl, and a lethal dose for most adults is only 2 milligrams.

Illicit fentanyl may be present in powder, tablet, or liquid forms, and is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin.

“Just touching fentanyl or accidentally inhaling the substance during enforcement activity or field testing the substance can result in absorption through the skin and that is one of the biggest dangers with fentanyl. The onset of adverse health effects, such as disorientation, coughing, sedation, respiratory distress or cardiac arrest is very rapid and profound, usually occurring within minutes of exposure,” the DEA said in a 2016 release.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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