SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Recent nationwide reporting has revealed that of all teenage overdose deaths in 2021, 77% of them were related to fentanyl. ABC4 spoke with local experts to learn more about what fentanyl is, why it’s dangerous, and how it has already hit Utah.

According to the DEA’s website, fentanyl is a “synthetic opiate” that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine and other similar opiates. This extreme strength not only makes it more frequently abused but much more likely to lead to overdose.

Fentanyl is available by prescription for serious pain, usually after invasive or debilitating surgery. It is also often frequently manufactured clandestinely, meaning it can reach potential abusers in a couple of different illicit ways.

While some abusers know that they are taking fentanyl, others take it inadvertently, as it it is frequently used to cut and strengthen other drugs such as heroin and similar opiates. This leads to frequent overdose, especially in adolescents.

Fentanyl has been detected in overdose cases around the nation, suggesting that it is being widely distributed at an extremely fast rate.

The DEA also reports that forensic drug reports detecting fentanyl have risen from 20,000 in 2015 to 117,045 in 2020. ABC4 spoke with local experts on if fentanyl has reached Utah, and if it is causing deaths.

Megan Broekemeier, a drug overdose forensic epidemiologist from the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner, says that simply criminalizing fentanyl will not be enough to stop it from causing more deaths.

Preliminary data from the Medical Examiner’s Office show a nearly 200% increase in the number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2021 compared with 2019.

Furthermore, Broekemeier confirms that Utah is like the rest of the nation in that people almost always end up taking fentanyl without knowing it, mixed with other illicit drugs. Fentanyl overdose often occurs when users mix it with stimulants such as methamphetamines. She mentions that while new problems with fentanyl in Utah are indeed frightening, Utahns continue to die from meth more frequently than fentanyl-related overdose. “Meth is lethal,” says Broekemeier.

Broekmeier’s data is likely to change as it continues to be validated by her office, but she reports that 68% of fentanyl overdoses occur in men, with the highest numbers occurring in victims 25-34 years old. “Every age group has seen increases,” says Broekemeier.

Broekemeier is a large proponent of harm reduction strategies for the opioid epidemic in Utah, which are research-based principles that reduce the chance of overdose and other health hazards of using drugs. While not doing illicit drugs is always safer, Broekemeier frequently references data showing that harm reduction principles saves lives.

Broekemeier adds that non-drug using Utahns can help to mitigate the risk of fentanyl in Utah. She encourages people to support legislation around state drug use harm reduction, to get trained in naloxone, and to reduce the general stigma around drug use and addiction. All of these things can help prevent deaths.

Christina Zidow, chief executive officer at Odyssey House in Utah, a non-profit helping drug addicts with recovery, says they’ve been seeing this trend in teens wanting to get clean.

“A fair number of them are using opioids we also see a lot of adolescents using substances like methamphetamine,” Zidow said.

She says it’s scary seeing kids hooked on these hard drugs.

“It’s really quite frightening because the point where an adolescent is coming to you and saying if I could do anything right now it would be to get high and use heroin it’s terrifying,” Zidow said.

Both Zidow and Broekmeier point to harm reduction tools that can detect fentanyl in drugs as a means to prevent overdose, as well as treating the problem as a sickness.

“Substance abuse not being a moral failing that it is an illness just like diabetes,” Zidow said.

If you are a parent concerned for your child, Zidow says try to connect and talk to them and allow them a space to open up.

According to preliminary data from the Office of the Medical Examiner, there were 569 accidental overdose deaths in Utah in 2021. Fentanyl was involved in 28% or 164 overdoses..

To help prevent opiate overdose, consider being trained in the use of naloxone and watch out for common symptoms of overdose.