On July 11 2022, a Facebook user shared a harrowing story of a purportedly near-fatal incident involving fentanyl on dollar bills.
Two images were shared alongside the post. A reporter from WKRN tweeted about the tale using the same images:
A pit stop in Bellevue takes a terrifying turn for a Kentucky family. A mother of six says she picked up a dollar bill off the ground at a fast food restaurant and soon passed out. I’ll have her story on @WKRN at 5 pic.twitter.com/dvdzucGhry
— Stephanie Langston (@stephnthecity) July 11, 2022
The extremely viral Facebook post that was picked up and turned into a news story (which we separated into paragraphs for clarification) said:
****This happened on Sunday, July 10th, 2022 at 4:30 PM****
Do NOT pick up ANYTHING off the ground.
I would not typically share a personal story like this on FB, but I am still in disbelief that it happened to me. Driving through Nashville, TN we needed to make a quick stop to use the bathroom. We stopped at McDonald’s and while I stand with my 3 month old baby, and wait for my husband so I could go to the bathroom, I see a dollar bill on the ground. Thinking absolutely nothing of it – I picked it up. Holding it in my hand I look around and contemplate giving it to the little girl I saw.
Right then my husband comes out of the bathroom and I throw the dollar in my pocket, hand him the baby, run to the bathroom. I wash my hands and I don’t dry them all the way. I go out to meet them and start to walk to the car a minute or so later. Meanwhile, I did grab the dollar out of my pocket, held it and then put it in my car door. As I did that I told my husband how lucky I was to find a random dollar. Then I grabbed a wipe to wipe off my hands bc I remembered him telling me not to pick up money off the ground as people have been putting it in fentanyl.
As he began to somewhat lecture me It hit me like a ton of bricks. All of a sudden I felt it start in my shoulders and the feeling was quickly going down my body and it would not stop. I said, “Justin, please help me. Im not kidding I feel really funny.” I grab his arm not thinking and then my body went completely numb, I could barely talk and I could barely breath. I was fighting to stay awake as Justin was screaming at me to stay awake and trying to talk to 911 and find the closest Fire Station or Hospital.
I passed out before we arrived at the hospital, but thankfully they worked almost as quickly as my husband did to get me there. It took a few hours and some meds, but I eventually started feeling somewhat normal again. The police officer that came to take our report told us it was one of two things; either the dollar bill was accidentally dropped and it had been used to cut and or store the drugs or it was purposely left with drugs on it.
Either way, this is absolutely real and sad. The mixture of my wet hands and the alcohol from the wipes, mixed with my bodies reaction to that drug could of cost me my life. God has other plans for me and thankfully I’m able to reflect upon and laugh at just how BLESSED I am to have my husband, who drove like my life depended upon it; 98mph in a 35, running every red light and crossing over curbs, because if it wasn’t for his love and determination and Gods plan’s, I wouldn’t be here. The morale, I don’t care if it’s a $20 bill or a $100 bill do not touch it!!!
According to the post, the incident occurred on July 10 2022 in the bathroom of a McDonald’s in or near Nashville. The user found “a dollar bill” and placed it in her pocket. Upon entering the vehicle, she moved the dollar bill to a car door. At that point, she recalled hearing that people had been putting fentanyl on random dollar bills — after which she believed she felt the physical effects of fentanyl poisoning.
From there, the woman and her family sought emergency medical treatment, consisting of “a few hours and some meds.” According to the post, a responding police officer attributed the experience to “one of two things” — either the dollar bill had been accidentally dropped and had been previously used to cut and store fentanyl, or it was purposely planted to harm unsuspecting people. (In actuality, there are many other options.)
Although the tweet embedded above was shared by a reporter at WKRN, it bore a Twitter warning adding that the woman had tested negative for contact with fentanyl, and that it is “impossible to overdose on fentanyl” by touching something with trace amounts of the drug:
Besides the fact that this woman had no symptoms of a fentanyl overdose (the opposite actually) and tested negative, it is impossible to overdose on fentanyl by touch …
That particular Twitter “context” box said the woman “tested negative,” but the linked citation was an August 2021 Reuters fact check about whether touching fentanyl is likely to cause a fatal incident.
We have also covered this topic extensively in the past:
However, a July 12 2022 WRDW article (“Authorities skeptical of woman’s claim of fentanyl-laced $1 bill”) contradicted that information, reporting:
Police responded to the hospital on Sunday [July 10 2022]. A spokesperson told WSMV that officers did not see any sort of residue on the dollar bill, but it was not tested for fentanyl since no one is being charged … Police said [fentanyl contaminated currency] is not an issue they are seeing in Nashville.
WKRN similarly reported that the dollar bill was not tested for fentanyl:
The family [Renee Parsons and Justin Parsons said] the toxicology report doesn’t test for synthetic drugs, but they feel confident fentanyl or a similar drug was on the money.
Earlier in the same piece, a toxicology expert explained why it was unlikely the story was accurate:
WSMV talked to Dr. Rebecca Donald, a fentanyl expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, about the incident.
“I think it is really unlikely the substance this lady got into her system is fentanyl based on the symptoms she had,” Donald said.
Donald is an assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at Vanderbilt. She said skin-to-skin contact is not a way people are exposed to drugs at levels that would cause them harm.
“It is much more likely for her to have a reaction if she had inadvertently rubbed her nose and exposed that drug to some of the blood vessels in her nose or licked her fingers or rubbed her eyes,” she said.
Donald said it is possible for the drug to get aerosolized and inhaled.
“That would take more of a volume of drug or quantity of drug,” she said. “It is certainly not impossible for that to happen, but one would think it would be a significant amount that you could see it on the hands and dollar bill to get into the air system.”
“You cannot overdose just by touching fentanyl or another opioid and you cannot overdose just by being around it,” said Dr Ryan Marino, medical director of Toxicology & Addiction at University Hospitals, Cleveland. “It will not get into the air and cause anyone to overdose.”
He added: “You cannot overdose through accidental contact. People do overdose accidentally, but it is people who are using drugs and either not expecting fentanyl or carfentanil, or something like that, or people who get an unknown dose because they are buying drugs from the street, so overdose that way.”
An undated statement from the American College of Medical Toxicology (ACMT) addressed fearmongering about fentanyl poisoning via touch:
Local and national media sources cited such expert recommendations as evidence for and verification of the risk of severe opioid toxicity following dermal fentanyl exposures despite limited empirical evidence. The American College of Medical Toxicology (ACMT) and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology (AACT) collaborated on a formal position statement using the best available evidence to ameliorate such concerns and revise those recommendations. Citing established pharmacokinetic literature on fentanyl patches, the position statement directly challenged the potential for severe toxicity from just touching fentanyl. Representatives from ACMT and AACT met with government officials on the issue. Partly as a result of these conversations, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released recommendations that aligned with ACMT and AACT’s position. The NIOSH subsequently revised its recommendations.
AMCT’s position was cited in a 2017 report by medical news site StatNews.com, “Are people really falling ill from touching fentanyl? In most cases, scientists say no.” It explained that the symptoms described in self-reported fentanyl contact incidents didn’t match the symptoms of fentanyl overdose:
The American College of Medical Toxicology recently issued a position paper concluding that, based on what’s been publicly released, none of the recent incidents involving first responders is consistent with opioid toxicity. The doctors, who reviewed a handful of cases, said they are not challenging the truthfulness of the officers involved. Rather, they are questioning whether their reports are verified cases of poisonings that carry the hallmarks of opioid exposure.
“A lot of the symptoms are nondescript, such as vague dizziness, that don’t concern opioid poisoning,” said Dr. Andrew Stolbach, a physician at Johns Hopkins Medical Center and lead author of the paper. “And in a lot of the cases, the way that they were exposed doesn’t make sense, like brushing a small amount of powder off a uniform.”
StatNews.com consulted medical experts who reiterated that fentanyl exposure doesn’t occur in the way urban legends suggest it does:
Although ingesting a pinch of fentanyl powder can be fatal, several toxicologists said contact with intact skin is extremely unlikely to cause opioid toxicity, which can occur only if the substance enters the bloodstream.
“If you have fentanyl powder on your hand for five or 10 minutes, it’s inconceivable that that would be sufficient to cause you to have an overdose,” said Dr. David Juurlink, a toxicologist at the University of Toronto.
Fentanyl cannot penetrate the skin on its own. It needs moisture. That’s why, in clinical care, patients are given fentanyl patches to aid in absorption and relieve pain. The position paper by the American College of Medical Toxicology reported that, even if a large area of the body were covered with fentanyl patches, it would take 14 minutes to transmit a therapeutic dose of 100 micrograms, let alone an overdose.
“For the fentanyl patch to work, you have to put a lot of fentanyl in the patch. It has to be moist and it has to be in contact with the skin for a long period of time, in a special liquid,” said Stolbach. “Those aren’t the conditions that are going to occur when somebody is incidentally exposed.”
It would take prolonged exposure to a large amount of airborne fentanyl to cause an overdose, according to the medical toxicologists. Their report references safety standards for industrial workers who manufacture fentanyl. “At the highest airborne concentration encountered by workers, an unprotected individual would require nearly 200 minutes of exposure to reach a dose of 100 mcg of fentanyl,” the report states. (100 mcg, or micrograms, is enough to have a therapeutic effect but not enough to cause an overdose.)
A July 11 2022 Facebook post describing a purported overdose due to fentanyl on dollar bills was virally popular, eventually leading to news items about the claim. However, toxicologists have long cautioned the public about fentanyl exposure, and regularly explain that you “cannot overdose just by touching fentanyl or another opioid and you cannot overdose just by being around it.” Despite widely-distributed information about the claims from credible sources, news organizations regularly publish misleading first-person stories about fentanyl contact overdoses. Local reporting on this particular Facebook post noted that local police did not consider fentanyl on dollar bills to be a genuine risk.