Testing stamp bags seized by law enforcement can give almost real-time insight into what drugs are circulating in the community before a public health emergency hits.
The Allegheny County Medical Examiner and the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health came to that conclusion after collaborating on a new study.
The study found that fentanyl, the opioid that's between 20 and 50 times as potent as heroin, went from being found in no stamp bags in 2014 to being in 15.5 percent of bags tested 2016. All the bags were tested in the Medical Examiner's drug chemistry laboratory.
Stamp bags are small wax packets that are used to package drugs, often heroin, before being sold.
In the U.S., fatal heroin overdoses have increased in the past decade by 300 percent, in part because it is more frequently mixed with fentanyl. More than 4,600 drug overdoses happened in Pennsylvania in 2016 -- more than twice the national average.
Toxicology reports on bodies can take months, but directly testing drugs can be done much faster. Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams says the ability to rapidly analyze the drugs is critical to dealing with the crisis and informing public health officials.
"It's useful information, for example, for emergency rooms to have some idea when people are coming in what the likelihood is [that they] overdosed on different drugs," Williams said.
Williams says it's important for public health officials to know about new drugs entering the county quickly because opioids involved in the current epidemic can change rapidly. He doesn't recommend that testing stamp bags replace other drug surveillance systems, only supplement them.
"You just plain do not know when you're buying one of these stamp bags what's in it," Williams said. "So to see everything that's in it gives us, law enforcement and the rehabilitation community an idea of what is circulating in the population."
In January, Gov. Tom Wolf declared the opioid epidemic a state emergency, and opened additional funds to combat the issue.