Tox Tuesday: 2016 U.S. drug death statistics released

U.S. drug overdose statistics for 2016 are now available. Approximately 64,000 lives were lost to overdoses throughout the year, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s an increase of 23% from 2015, when roughly 52,000 people died of overdoses.

The New York Times reports that this is the first national report that gives not only numbers, but breaks them down by state and by particular drug, revealing one culprit that has caused more deaths than any other drug: fentanyl. Over 20,000 were killed by fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. Just three years ago, that number was under 5,000.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid about 80 times stronger than morphine. In the medical world, it’s used as a tranquilizer for large animals — we’re talking elephant-large. It’s incredibly potent, and just a few grains can kill. In some varieties, like carfentanil, accidental inhalation of trace amounts has caused overdoses, so law enforcement and medical responders need to be extremely careful about exposure when handling anyone who may be in possession of the drug.

Heroin, one of the better known faces of the opioid crisis, caused over 15,000 drug deaths in 2016, and prescription opioids over 14,000. Cocaine, meth and methadone were the next highest causes of death.

On the left is a lethal dose of heroin. On the right is a lethal dose of fentanyl.

Many states saw significant increases in overdose deaths, especially Delaware (71% increase), Maryland (67% increase) and Florida (55% increase). Nebraska, Washington and Wyoming saw very small decreases.

Data is not in yet for 2017, but experts say the crisis is continuing to worsen.

For a primer on what opioids do, where they are causing the most damage, and why these overdose statistics are rising, check out the New York Times’ summary, “Short Answers to Hard Questions about the Opioid Crisis.”

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