The RCMP are reviewing how their members should handle fentanyl following new reports that downplay the risks faced by frontline officers exposed to the drug.

While fentanyl remains a deadly and unpredictable drug for those who take it, new research from within the RCMP suggests that police officers aren’t likely to overdose on the opioid by absorbing it through their skin or inhaling it.

“Exposure to people handling the substance is not as high as we thought it was initially,” Sgt. Luc Chicoine, the RCMP’s national drug program co-ordinator, told CBC News.

That marks a shift in the RCMP’s thinking since just a few years ago, when the police service released a video warning about the dangers fentanyl and other opioids pose to first responders — a line picked up in media reports.

Chicoine, who has been part of the RCMP team dealing with Canada’s opioid crisis since its infancy, said that when the crisis began, police had to act on a “worst-case scenario.”

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“At that time, the information available on fentanyl was very, very limited,” he said.

The RCMP’s initial caution, Chicoine said, “created a little bit of a monster and fear within our membership and within the community.” He cited reports warning people to be wary of touching shopping cart handles to avoid accidentally coming into contact with fentanyl.

‘Risk is relatively low’

The force is now reviewing available evidence to help clarify the RCMP’s fentanyl policy. The results of that review likely will be shared with other police organizations.

“We have created a little bit of a fear and that’s what we’re trying to solve by doing the full, ‘Let’s take a step back and take a position for the RCMP,'” said Chicoine.

There have been reports of first responders requiring medical attention following suspected fentanyl exposure. In May 2018, a member of the Seba Beach Patrol Service in Alberta was rushed to hospital after he picked up a vial of powder he found on a road. In 2017, the union for Alberta correctional officers raised alarms after several members came into contact with the drug.

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Bruce Christianson, the RCMP’s director of occupational safety, said wearing standard protective gear such as gloves and masks should be enough to protect police officers.

RCMP Cpl. Derek Westwick, left, of the Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement Team, guides a member of the team – wearing a type of protective suit worn when dismantling drug production facilities containing fentanyl – into a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, September 3, 2015. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

“When you’re actually seizing the drugs, the risk is relatively low,” he said.

“If you take the proper precautions and you do your job as you should, then the chances of being exposed are not as great as, you know, some may have feared early on in this crisis.”

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Chicoine said the new findings could affect how officers go about seizing and handling the drug — but the biggest change will be to undercover investigations.

Mounties first began carrying naloxone in October 2016 to treat opioid overdoses. In that first year, Mounties administered the antidote in 286 suspected overdose cases. In that first year, just four officers were given naloxone.

“No follow-up toxicology has been done to confirm if it was, in fact, due to an accidental exposure to fentanyl or if it was other psychosomatic symptoms,” said Chicoine.

According to the latest figures from Health Canada, there were 2,066 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada between January and June 2018, bringing the national death toll up to 9,000 since the start of 2016.

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