Karl Williams

Mick Stinelli / 90.5 WESA

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Cliff Owen / AP Photo

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.

Cliff Owen / AP

Fentanyl deaths outranked those attributed to heroin last year for the first time in Allegheny County, according to data released Thursday by the medical examiner's office.

Coroners and medical examiners in all but one of the 10-county region reported spikes in drug overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016 -- up 44 percent in Allegheny County and 38 percent in Westmoreland County.

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

The Allegheny County Medical Examiners Office is one of only a few in the country that also has an in-house forensic laboratory.

90.5 WESA’s Deanna Garcia spoke with Medical Examiner Karl Williams about the facility and ongoing trends.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Drug-related deaths are usually ruled accidental.

But one Pennsylvania coroner said he's ruling some overdoses homicides. Lycoming County Coroner Charles Kiessling said he’s not the first in Pennsylvania to interpret toxicology reports in that way and that it's legal. 

Drug-related deaths are on the rise in Pennsylvania - the state saw more than 2,700 in 2014. That's an increase of 13 percent from the year before. Among all overdoses, heroin is the most frequently identified drug. 

Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

From a corridor outside the intake bays at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office, chief examiner Karl Williams takes a mental inventory.

"Thirteen-hundred cases, 1,600 items in every year, around 150,000 tests," he said. "You can’t do analyses of every piece of potential evidence you get in, but we’ve always got it."

Homicides committed outside city limits make up just a fraction of the deaths Williams’ county-wide office oversees, but most murders are evaluated in tandem by multiple agencies, including county and municipal police, pathologists and a spectrum of other agencies tasked with a battery of supplemental tasks.

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

The Allegheny County Crime Lab is a full lab that performs a wealth crime-related tasks, such as DNA testing and crime scene analysis, but it’s funding has been cut by the state in recent years.

If the lab continues to receive no state funding, it’s in danger of closing. On Tuesday, a joint legislative hearing heard from a list of speakers about why the lab should be a funding priority. Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams said, for starters, it’s a one-of-a-kind facility.

Health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012, enough for every adult in the U.S. to have a bottle of pills, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gary Tennis, secretary of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), said that since 2000, prescription drug and heroin overdoses have quadrupled.