Florida News Stations Double Down on Law Enforcement ‘Fentanyl Exposure’ Claims

News outlets in Florida once again indulged law enforcement claims of “distress” related to fentanyl “exposure” in August 2023, despite these types of claims being publicly debunked over and over again.

The latest instance emanated in Flagler County, where the sheriffs department released footage of Deputy Nick Huzior telling Deputy First Class Kyle Gaddie he felt lightheaded while “testing a powdery white substance” during a traffic stop.

Fact Check

Claim: Law enforcement officers can experience distress from fentanyl exposure

Description: News outlets in Florida reported on law enforcement claims of ‘distress’ related to fentanyl ‘exposure’ during a traffic stop in August 2023. Despite these claims being debunked multiple times, the news coverage focused only on the law enforcement’s version of events. Experts and medical professionals have stressed that being in close proximity to fentanyl does not cause symptoms like light-headedness or physical collapses as seen in the video.

Rating: False

Rating Explanation: The claim has been repeatedly debunked by medical professionals who have stated that fentanyl cannot be readily absorbed through the skin or cause overdoses by simply being near it. The narrative that law enforcement officers are at risk of distress due to fentanyl exposure has been identified as false.

Coverage of the incident focused solely on the department’s version of events, rendering it similar to other purported instances of “exposure”:

Knowing that the narcotics Huzior had been testing could contain fentanyl, Gaddie quickly gave him a precautionary dose of Narcan. When Huzior didn’t get better after several minutes, Gaddie gave him a second dose of Narcan.

Huzior was then taken by Flagler County Fire Rescue to AdventHealth Palm Coast and was treated in the ER and later released.

The narcotics that Huzior was testing later tested presumptive positive for fentanyl, deputies said.

“What happened yesterday is a perfect example of the dangers law enforcement face each and every day from poison on the streets,” Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said.

Jacksonville-based First Coast News also included a statement backing up the department’s account:

T.J. Ward with Project Opioid says fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and if the deputy had not administered NARCAN, Deputy Nick Huzior could have died.

While fentanyl can be fatal, however, experts have repeatedly stated that being around it in these circumstances cannot produce the type of light-headedness and physical collapses seen in the video. In fact, Dr. Ryan Marino, a toxicologist who has repeatedly publicly spoken out against this type of reporting, noted that the video showed “literally the exact opposite” of an overdose:

“This video very clearly shows that the deputy did not experience a fentanyl overdose,” Marino wrote. “It’s embarrassing and frankly dangerous for news media to continue to perpetuate this lie. Especially when it’s this obviously untrue.”

As we have previously reported, both the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology and the American College of Medical Toxicology have also publicly debunked this type of claim:

Fentanyl and its analogs are potent opioid receptor agonists, but the risk of clinically significant exposure to emergency responders is extremely low. To date, we have not seen reports of emergency responders developing signs or symptoms consistent with opioid toxicity from incidental contact with opioids. Incidental dermal absorption is unlikely to cause opioid toxicity. For routine handling of drug, nitrile gloves provide sufficient dermal protection.

One person, who did not show signs of “exposure” to fentanyl, was reportedly arrested in the traffic stop that produced what news stations have described as the “dramatic” video involving Huzior. The sheriffs department did not return a request for comment on the multiple findings debunking their claim, but WFTV-TV published a statement from Division Chief John Welker glossing over it.

“What I know is the sheriff’s office provides our deputies with the proper protection equipment,” Welker said. “But in today’s world with fentanyl and a lot of these drugs that are out here, they can easily be airborne and absorbed through the skin.”

In fact, in January 2023 the health department for the University of California-Davis published a plainspoken rebuttal:

Fentanyl cannot be readily absorbed through the skin, nor can you overdose on fentanyl by touching a doorknob or dollar bill. As a result, it is safe to help people who have overdosed on fentanyl.

We contacted First Coast News, WJXT-TV, and WFTV-TV as well as the Florida Association of Broadcast Journalists seeking comment. No one has responded.

However, WJXT did air a follow-up story quoting Marino on August 16 2023, although it is presented as a “disagreement” between law enforcement and Marino; the station said at one point (emphasis ours):

Dr. Marino is an emergency physician, a medical toxicologist and an addiction specialist with Case Western University in Ohio. He’s also an outspoken critic of law enforcement agencies sharing what he calls false information about the drug and accidental exposure.

“Obviously, this is a problem just because it’s not true,” Marino told News4JAX in a Zoom interview Wednesday. “And people are having severe reactions because of this belief. But I’ve also seen kind of the downstream effects where this leads to increased stigma and increased biases. And even for people who are experiencing actual overdoses, people are too scared to get near them and will not resuscitate them in time.”

A sheriffs department spokesperson, Ava Hanner, responded to what the station called “concerns” by claiming that the substance Huzior was “exposed to” tested positive for fentanyl.

“However, we do not have a full analysis of all possible narcotics he was exposed to during the search,” she added. “To speculate without having the toxicology and medical report would not be prudent for our agency or anyone to comment.”

The story also cited similar footage released by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department in August 2021; however it failed to note that then-Sheriff Bill Gore later admitted that the deputy in question was never diagnosed with an overdose by any medical professional.

“The drugs tested for fentanyl. It was classic signs of fentanyl overdose — that’s why we called it that,” Gore said at the time.

Update 8/16/2023, 11:17 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect further reporting by WJXT-TV. — ag