Fentanyl use in regional Queensland is high, and consistently rising, according to a major workplace drug testing agency.
Safework Laboratories national toxicologist Phil Tynan said this was a concern considering the major issues the powerful opioid was causing in the United States, where it is a leading cause of drug-related deaths.
It is the drug that killed pop star Prince, who had an “exceedingly high” concentration of fentanyl in his body when he died in 2016, toxicology results showed.
Mr Tynan said workplace urine fentanyl capture rates had been rising over the last two years in regional Queensland.
“But wastewater studies suggest overall workplace use rates are still relatively low compared to the state regional average, and in many sites oxycodone appears to be the semisynthetic opioid of choice,” he said.
“This contrasts with South Australia, where workplace fentanyl use is equal or higher than the state average. Note however, this does not mean Queensland mining site fentanyl use is negligible – merely that community use rates are still higher than workplace use.”
He was commenting after the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission released the seventh report of the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program, revealing that Queensland and South Australia showed the highest average regional consumption of fentanyl nationally.
Across nine sites monitored in Queensland in December 2018—three capital city and six unnamed regional sites—wastewater data showed Queensland also had the second highest average regional consumption of cocaine, MDMA, MDA and oxycodone in the country.
While methamphetamine was still a bigger problem in terms of the extent it was used throughout Australia, Mr Tynan said fentanyl presented a grave danger as a fatal dose of the drug was not that much more than the dose required to create a ‘high’.
“In the US, in 2016 fentanyl and fentanyl analogues accounted for 20,000 deaths – making fentanyl the leading cause of drug-related deaths, representing a 540 per cent rise over the preceding three years,” he said.
“Fentanyl is roughly 80 to 100 times more potent than heroin, and the newer fentanyl analogues are many hundreds of times more potent.”
Mr Tynan said semisynthetic opioids like oxycodone and fentanyl, as well as the newer fentanyl derivatives (such as carfentanyl and sufentanyl), were not picked up in standard workplace drug screens.
“The fact that these drugs are ‘effectively invisible’ is becoming increasingly well-known,” he said.
“Many of the internet drug discussion sites, including the large EROWID internet site, openly advocate use of the semisynthetic opioids for the quality of the high they induce and the difficulty of detecting them in the workplace or in roadside testing.”
However he said mining companies and other industries, particularly utilities and construction companies, were beginning to order extended opiate testing more frequently on random drug test specimens to assay for fentanyl and oxycodone.
Safework has conducted wastewater drug studies at Queensland work sites as well as screening individuals.
Mr Tynan said the company’s wastewater studies in WA, Queensland and SA found that methamphetamine was by far the major stimulant used.
“Meth use at minesites is consistently substantially lower than the national and state urban and regional averages but still represents significant OHS risk, and use rates do not appear uniform across the entire mine site (i.e., some subsites have markedly higher drug mass loads in the effluent streams than others).
“Meth use appears highest in WA and SA (which is supported by the findings of the ACIC National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Report 7) and lower (albeit still significant) in Queensland. XTC/MDMA use appears negligible across most sites.
“Cocaine use at some minesites is higher than the state average and shows considerable variation between states, with the peak use occurring around weekends or at the ends of shifts, consistent with recreational use.
“Oxycodone and fentanyl use varies significantly between states. There often seems a reciprocal relation between fentanyl use and oxycodone use – where access to one is restricted users will often turn to the other semisynthetic opioid.”