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Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire: Will Touching Fentanyl Kill You?

liar liar pants on fire

By Claire Zagorski, MSc, LP, Salon

A dangerous myth about illicit fentanyl, the opioid largely behind the surge in overdose deaths, simply will not die. While addiction and drug policy experts have repeatedly refuted the idea that touching fentanyl alone can cause an overdose, like a stubborn weed, the lie keeps coming back. And now the myth has drifted upward to policymakers, who are ignoring the lack of evidence that mere exposure to fentanyl can be deadly.

At this moment, three bills — one in Florida (SB 718), one in West Virginia (HB 5319), and the other in Tennessee (SB 1754) — are making their way through their respective state legislatures.  All three will allow for a felony charge to be levied against people who expose a first responder to fentanyl or a fentanyl analog, such as carfentanil or remifentanil. But HB 5319 casts an even wider net, encompassing any opioid regardless of potency. 


While fentanyl is easily absorbed through injection, pyrolyzing and inhaling its vapor, snorting it, or swallowing it, it isn’t good at passing through skin. When it hit the market in the 1990s, Duragesic, the trade name for the fentanyl skin patch, was a minor marvel of drug delivery innovation precisely for this reason. It took many years of effort to develop and refine a way to move fentanyl across the skin, much less in a controlled and predictable way. And even then, reaching a steady, pain-relieving blood concentration of fentanyl with the patch takes several hours, even with sustained contact. Fentanyl also does not aerosolize on its own, which is why people have to either snort (i.e., insufflate rather than inhale) or intentionally vaporize it.

If the science here is so straightforward, why is there still confusion? This myth of passive fentanyl overdose was first put forth in a 2016 bulletin from the Drug Enforcement Agency, which has since been updated, and the language softened. Other authoritative bodies like the CDC have repeated the myth, and despite changing their warnings to reflect the fact that there is no evidence this can happen or has ever happened, the agency still maintains a rather misleading guide under NIOSH’s website, which largely deals in hypothetical situations that are very unlikely to ever happen.

But if you’ve been following headlines, this all may be a surprise to you. Over the years, we’ve seen a steady drip of pieces on police encounters with fentanyl resulting in alleged overdoses. The more peripheral details vary, but the core remains strikingly consistent — an officer saw something that looked like a drug, or perhaps dusted some powdery grains off of their uniform. Someone mentions fentanyl. Suddenly they feel something — heart pounding, chest tightening, fingers tingling, light-headedness. Often, these officers are able to give themselves naloxone, the antidote to an opioid overdose. And while these experiences are certainly frightening, they aren’t opioid overdoses, which cause slow or absent breathing and a loss of consciousness.

Despite their viral spread in media and online, the smallest amount of scrutiny is able to disprove every single instance. The more likely explanation is an anxiety reaction or a similar psychosomatic response, like the “nocebo effect” (essentially the opposite of the placebo effect), where simply believing something can harm you will cause very real symptoms. We can, indeed, convince ourselves that boogeymen are real. Who among us hasn’t jumped at every small noise after watching a scary movie alone at night? But ultimately, we must separate myth from fact. Especially when, as is the case here, the myth actively harms others.


Rampant and stubborn mythologies about the contact risks of fentanyl have already created confusion and anxiety in the American public. People need fact-based education about real risks, rather than worrying about fantastical narratives which only stir up panic. At the very least, we can choose not to codify this fiction into laws that will further harm people who use drugs, while protecting no one. 

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    What? We can’t believe the voice of authority about fentanyl? Next thing, they’ll be telling me marijuana (the devil weed) is not the gateway drug that leads inevitably to crack addiction.

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    Wait? Police, government agencies, and media are lying about something? Now, I’m not a Qanoner who thinks there are mysterious conspiracies happening. But I’m sadly aware we can only cautiously accept truth from these institutions. (Turns out, with us humans power sure does corrupt.)

    I wonder if the pendulum is ever sensible? (I know, mixed metaphor.) Where drugs are treated as useful to help people, instead of demonized OR overprescribed? Plus, if people addicted to drugs weren’t treated like criminals, but instead treated humanely? Of course, this would require us to treat them like they deserve to be treated, like people who deserve a chance in life. And finally, for doctors to be allowed to give patients in horrible pain, meds that make them able to function? I know my current level of functioning isn’t great, but if I had to suffer much more?* I don’t know if I could stand to live.

    *Also, why are the pain relieving qualities of THC not being shouted from the rooftops? Why have I had to research other legal pain relievers when my docs gave me stuff that didn’t help? (Tramadol only helps me if I take doses big enough to get addicted, and doesn’t really help that much.) I am thankful for Gabapentin, it does make a huge difference for day to day pain.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    It is easier to garner information about Rx meds if you seek that information well away from Big Pharma. They actively mislead us and feed the public only results of ‘studies’ they prefer us to know about… In fact it is Big Pharma that pays for most of the testing done on new meds and then they choose which ‘tests’ to allow us to view. And they feed us the language to use when discussing the meds. Aw, she’s a real dirty business and there might not be another more lucrative one in the USA. Does the war machine trump Big Pharma? I don’t know but I doubt it. Doctors listen to Big Pharma direction and create oratory for their patients based on cherry-picked ‘science’. An example is statin drugs, a windfall in profits and a huge mistake for many users. Statins have been shown to change the overall death rate by less than 1 percent! Big Pharma has always known this but still rakes in the millions while people continue to take drugs with awful side effects… My doc told me that statins lower blood pressure. When he said that I just shut-up cuz what’s the point… if a doc is that far gone, they are that far gone. Statins can make certain LDL changes and over time other effects could include a lowering of pressure but it wasn’t the statins so much as other factors in that change. I remain very very careful with drugs and though it took me into my sixties to realize it finally, I know for myself now that lifestyle changes, low-carb/no sugar diet with intermittent fasting gives my body the raw material to heal itself. I just shake my head when I see hw many commercials Big Pharma is brainwashing people with… totally coo-coo.

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      Brian, my cardio Doc was determined that I take a statin and when the side effects became intolerable, he just switched me to another and then another until he ran out of statins to try on me. About that time I started reading Dr. Mercola and wised up about how useless and even dangerous statins are. I fired that cardio and ten years later I’m fine. Now I wouldn’t take a statin at gun point. I advise anyone to think twice about taking statins.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    When you think about it, the scare stories about fentanyl are like the “slippery slope” diatribes we hear from religious people: One look at a nude picture will turn you into a sex addict or predator. Instead of educating children (and adults) to make sensible choices, it seems that authorities believe that the only way to prevent harmful behavior (or a fast trip to Hell) is to scare people.

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    ... Zoe ~

    An educational piece. Thanks for sharing. I remember being scared to death that one of our children on the front lines of mental health and addiction would somehow die from an overdose if they came in contact with it. Even then they didn’t know otherwise.

    I personally have grown weary of the conversations around “do this” “don’t do that” regarding health/wellness issues. Take the conversation above re: statins. There isn’t an area of the “natural wellness” realm that I haven’t dabbled with including dietary and mental health services. I’m still in constant pain. I’m currently on a low dose statin. I’d be hard pressed to know if any med I took worsened my pain or lessened it. I’d be hard pressed to know whether it is extending my life or shortening it. What I have noticed, is the stress around “do this” “don’t do that” is likely shortening my life. As well, the entire topic in religious circles and medical circles (including natural medicine) (which is another huge topic) that leaves on being told or it is at least implied, that it’s the sick persons fault they are sick &/or suffering.

    At a recent hair appointment, my hair dresser exclaimed: Don’t get me started on statins! I didn’t but she was elaborating on all things alternative and this is killing us and that is killing us and she has stepped now into conspiracy stuff and I’m sitting there getting a hair cut from a woman who is in the church cult we left and the whole religious stuff is a cloud of dust around us like hairspray, and she realizes something and says: You are probably going to say it’s a conspiracy, to which I reply laughing: yes I probably will. Do you know what statins can do to you? she asks. I tell her yes, I’ve read it all, heard it all. It’s low dose (not I’m trying to make her feel better) and I don’t know if it is or not but right now I’m on it. Blah de blah de blah de blah.

    Sorry Bruce. As you know . . . 🙂

    I should start a blog, eh?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I agree. People turn “health” into a religion, complete with prophets and divine texts.

      I’m a proponent of science based medicine. You want me to accept a medical claim, then I want to see double-blind studies and extensive testing, to say the least. I’m not a proponent of alternative medicine. There’s medicine and quackery. That’s it. Either it’s backed by science, or it’s not. That doesn’t mean that that placebo effect doesn’t help people —- it does, but if you want me to buy in to what you are selling, then I want to see the money.

      What works for one person may not work for another. That said, millions of people have benefited from statins —- my wife included. She has a genetic disposition towards high cholesterol. Her and I eat mostly the same diet, yet she battles high cholesterol and I have cholesterol numbers to die (or live) for.

      I stopped arguing with people about medicine. I don’t respond to readers who offer me unsolicited medical advice. I’ve repeatedly written on the subject, but some readers are cock-sure they know better.

      As far as Joe Mercola is concerned, I really don’t want to offend anyone, but I think he is a quack and conspiracy theorist. The Science Based Medicine site has published numerous article about Mercola:

      Of course, you know all this. You have actually listened to me over the years. 🤣❤️

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