Drug deaths in the U.S. rose at the steepest rate ever to the highest level in recorded history in 2016, claiming more than 60,000 lives, and early data suggest deaths from opioids and other drugs will continue to increase in 2017.
Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Tuesday.
"Drug abuse is crippling families and communities throughout our country," Rosenstein said at a joint news conference with Drug Enforcement Agency officials. "We are not talking about a slight increase. There is a horrifying surge in drug overdoses."
More than two million Americans have some sort of physical dependence on opioids — painkillers that are legally prescribed to many people, but can become addicting if they are taken in excess or for long periods of time.
A new and even more dangerous aspect of the opioid crisis is the increasing prevalence of extremely potent, illegally manufactured variants of existing drugs, such as fentanyl.
Even minute amounts of illicit versions of fentanyl or carfentanil — as little as two or three grains — can be lethal. A troubling side effect of the drug problem is the risk that such potent substances pose to police officers and paramedics trying to help drug overdose victims.
Although DEA does not yet have data quantifying the problem, officials say there is a clear increase in cases where first responders handling evidence or helping overdose victims have become ill, suffering breathing problems, dizziness and even loss of consciousness after accidental inhalation of such opioids. The acting administrator of the federal antidrug agency, Chuck Rosenberg, has warned emergency responders to use caution in drug-overdose cases, and to wear protective gear such as masks and gloves to reduce the chance of accidental contamination.
Even dogs trained to detect illegal drugs are at risk. Their handlers have begun carrying antidotes for the animals as well as for themselves, but the new wave of synthetic drugs is so powerful that multiple doses of antidotes are sometimes necessary to save the rescuers.
Summarizing the DEA advice to emergency teams at an overdose scene, Rosenberg said: "If you don't know what it is, assume there's something in it that will kill you.''
Rising threat in Europe
The extremely rapid rise in opioid problems is not unique to the U.S. The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, in Lisbon, reported Tuesday that dangerous synthetic compounds mimicking the effects of heroin or morphine are a growing health threat in the EU.
Overdose deaths in Europe rose six percent to 8,441 in 2015, rising for the third consecutive year. And the center warned that drug-related deaths in Europe could be much higher, due to "systematic under-reporting in some countries" and delayed reporting.
Legally prescribed opioids, which are estimated to be used by up to 100 million Americans, also are a growing issue in Europe. Opioids are now represented in 38 percent of all requests for drug treatment in the European Union, the center's report said, adding: "In both Europe and North America, the recent emergence of highly potent new synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl derivatives, is causing considerable concern."