Death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman spotlights fentanyl scourge

Tue Feb 4, 2014 9:17pm EST
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By Ransdell Pierson and Chris Francescani

(Reuters) - Investigators are racing to find the source of a synthetic narcotic called fentanyl that is sometimes mixed with heroin and is believed by health authorities to be responsible for scores of U.S. overdose deaths in recent months.

The authorities are investigating whether fentanyl, which is up to 50 times more potent than heroin, might have been combined with the heroin believed to have killed Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The Oscar-winning actor was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on Sunday, with a syringe stuck in his arm. New York City police sources familiar with the case said 50 small bags of what appeared to be heroin were found in his home.

An autopsy of the actor's body was performed on Monday and the results could be made available as soon as Wednesday, officials said.

"It takes a very small amount of fentanyl to kill. A few grains of powder by itself is probably enough," said Dr. Melinda Campopiano, medical officer for the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "The heroin is probably incidental at that point."

Many addicts like the additional "pop" that fentanyl seems to give their heroin high, even though they are usually unaware of the drug's presence and added danger, according to experts.

The full extent of the current fentanyl scourge remains a mystery, according to health and law enforcement officials. No national surveillance system tracks these drug overdoses and many states and counties do not routinely test for the chemical.

"The states have the capability in terms of lab capacity, but it's a matter how public health resources are allocated," said Dr. Matthew Lozier, epidemic intelligence officer for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   Continued...

Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman smiles during a photo call for the World Premiere of the film "Mission Impossible III" in Rome in this April 24, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito/Files