DEA working hard to battle nationwide fentanyl epidemic

Fentanyl is a powerful drug behind a surge of recent deadly overdoses across our country. Loudoun County in Virginia has reported four deaths connected to fentanyl in just the last month, and the opiate is suspected in ten deadly overdoses in Sacramento, Calif., in recent weeks.

The problem is so bad that the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a nationwide alert.

The agency invited FOX 5 into their federal lab to show us what they are dealing with and they also said last summer's synthetic marijuana problem in Washington D.C. is having an effect on how they investigate this epidemic.

"It definitely makes you pause and make sure you're taking appropriate precautions to protect yourself," said Emily Dye, a forensic chemist at the DEA's Special Testing and Research Laboratory in Sterling, Va.

It is her job to identify new drugs from the streets. The drug she sees most often lately? Fentanyl.

It is 50 times more powerful than heroin and cheaper to make. Fentanyl is not only lethal in minute amounts, but it is also transdermal, meaning it can be absorbed through the skin. However, it is usually snorted or injected.

Dye said two milligrams of fentanyl hydrochloride can be a lethal dose.

Karl Colder, special agent in charge of the DEA's Washington Field Office, wants people to know how potent this really is.

"This is dangerous," he said. "Don't touch it because it's deadly. That's what we want to show the public - that small amount is that dangerous."

Fentanyl is one of the most powerful painkillers available for medical treatment and is typically administered to cancer patients through a patch or injection. But between 2012 and 2014, the number of seizures of illicit fentanyl skyrocketed.

Fentanyl gives users an intense euphoric high. But too much of it and it could simply make you stop breathing or could turn fatal.

On the streets, fentanyl can be mixed with heroin, cocaine or several other drugs and that is what makes it especially dangerous and challenging for the DEA.

Also, when suppliers create a new drug combination, it means a brand new substance not regulated by law. In order for the laws to keep up, the DEA has to keep up and that means acting fast.

"The quicker we get it to our chemists to analyze, the better we are off in knowing what we are dealing with," said Colder.

It is something they learned during last year's synthetic pot problem in D.C.

"We were seeing people dying on the streets of Washington D.C. on a daily basis," Colder said. "We had no idea what these chemicals were."

Colder admits they were slow in getting a handle on that problem. But once they started coordinating with other agencies, they could identify the chemical compound of the synthetic pot and begin prosecution.

The problem with fentanyl is the inherent danger of the substance itself.

"Because of the dangers associated with fentanyl, we can't even touch it," he said. "We have to rush it to the laboratories."

In this lab, they not only identify the drug, but they can find out where the drugs come from.

"Back to street gangs that are distributing, cartels and host countries," said Colder.

He said they are training local and state agencies every day on how to handle overdose scenes and are working hard to educate the public, especially younger people who are now the targets of fentanyl suppliers.

"There is a point of no return on this," said Colder. "$30 a bag on the street and you could be dead at one bag."