Fentanyl overdoses become No. 1 cause of death among US adults, ages 18-45: 'A national emergency'

Fentanyl overdoses have surged to the leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 18 and 45, according to an analysis of U.S. government data.

Between 2020 and 2021, nearly 79,000 people between 18 and 45 years old — 37,208 in 2020 and 41,587 in 2021 — died of fentanyl overdoses, the data analysis from opioid awareness organization Families Against Fentanyl shows.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be deadly even in very small amounts, and other drugs, including heroin, meth and marijuana, can be laced with the dangerous drug. Mexico and China are the primary sources for the flow of fentanyl into the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). 

Comparatively, between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 15, 2021, there were more than 53,000 COVID-19 deaths among those between the ages of 18 and 49, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"This is a national emergency. America’s young adults — thousands of unsuspecting Americans — are being poisoned," James Rauh, founder of Families Against Fentanyl, said in a statement. "It is widely known that illicit fentanyl is driving the massive spike in drug-related deaths. A new approach to this catastrophe is needed."

Rauh, who lost his son to an overdose, added that "declaring illicit fentanyl a Weapon of Mass Destruction would activate additional and necessary federal resources to root out the international manufacturers and traffickers of illicit fentanyl and save American lives."

The DEA on Thursday announced a surge in the sale of fake prescription pills containing deadly opioids on social media platforms like Snapchat.

Experts believe there is a correlation between the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the recent increase in fentanyl overdoses.

More adults between 18 and 45 died of fentanyl overdoses in 2020 than any other leading cause of death, including COVID-19, motor vehicle accidents, cancer and suicide. Fentanyl also killed more Americans in general in 2020 than car accidents, gun violence, breast cancer and suicide, according to the analysis of CDC data from Families Against Fentanyl. 

Fentanyl deaths doubled from 32,754 fatalities to 64,178 fatalities in two years between April 2019 and April 2021.

In the first five months of 2021 alone, more than 42,600 fentanyl overdose deaths were reported, which represents an increase of more than 1,000 fentanyl deaths per month compared to the same time period in 2020.

"Fentanyl has been found in all the drug supply. That's why anyone using drugs, not just opioids, should carry naloxone," Dr. Roneet Lev, emergency physician and former chief medical officer of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), said in a statement. "The only safe place to obtain drugs is the pharmacy."

Overall drug overdose deaths are expected to surpass 100,000 in 2021, according to preliminary CDC data, representing a 28% increase between April 2020 and April 2021.

President Biden on Wednesday issued an executive order authorizing sanctions against any foreigner engaged in illicit drug trafficking or production.

"I find that international drug trafficking — including the illicit production, global sale and widespread distribution of illegal drugs, the rise of extremely potent drugs such as fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, as well as the growing role of internet-based drug sales — constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States," Biden's order states.

Fentanyl drug seizures at the border have reached record highs in 2021, according to data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as the Biden administration faces a continuing crisis at the southern border.

Border authorities have seized more than 11,000 pounds of fentanyl so far in fiscal year 2021, with less than one month to go, dwarfing the 4,776 pounds seized in fiscal 2020. CBP seizures of other drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and heroin have generally decreased since 2018.

Experts recommend people who use any kind of drug carry Narcan, a lifesaving medicine also known as naloxone, which has the ability to reverse symptoms of an overdose and potentially save lives, according to Family First Intervention.

Fox News' Adam Shaw and Andrew Mark Miller contributed to this report.

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