For nearly a decade, a myth has circulated, influencing public perception and news coverage of the opioid overdose crisis: the belief that touching or being near fentanyl can cause sickness or death. However, there’s little evidence to support this claim, and ample evidence to refute it.

Reports of individuals experiencing symptoms after fentanyl exposure, particularly among law enforcement, have contributed to the perpetuation of this myth. Stories of first responders, police officers, or bystanders falling ill after coming into contact with fentanyl have been widespread since around 2016. Despite efforts by public health agencies to counter this belief, the myth remains prevalent, leading to legislative proposals in states like Florida, West Virginia, and Tennessee to penalize individuals for exposing first responders to fentanyl.

The fear surrounding fentanyl exposure is understandable given its potency compared to other opioids. Yet, experts assert that the risk of fatal overdose from casual contact is minimal. Fentanyl is not readily absorbed through the skin, and even in powdered form, absorption is slow. The American College of Medical Toxicology (ACMT) and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology (AACT) have emphasized that the risk of significant exposure to emergency responders is extremely low.

While there are theoretical scenarios in which fentanyl exposure could pose a risk, such as through mucous membranes or aerosolization, these situations are uncommon and require specific conditions. Nonetheless, precautionary measures have been recommended for first responders encountering fentanyl, including the use of gloves and masks.

Symptoms reported after fentanyl exposure often do not align with those of opioid overdose, suggesting that anxiety or fear may be contributing factors. Despite skepticism from media and health agencies, the myth of deadly fentanyl exposure persists, diverting attention from addressing the genuine dangers of the opioid crisis. Ultimately, efforts to combat the opioid epidemic require a focus on evidence-based solutions rather than unfounded fears.