On November 19, 2017, first responders raced to a home in Coventry, Rhode Island to treat an unresponsive infant. But, it was too late; by the time the medics brought the baby to a nearby hospital, the 8-month-old was already dead. Later, the parents were arrested and charged with felony child neglect after a toxicology report found the powerful opioid painkiller fentanyl was present in the child’s system.
When a tragedy like this happens, someone has to clean up what remains at the scene, whether it’s blood, body fluid, or deadly drugs. In this case, Michael Wiseman was called to the home to get rid of all traces of fentanyl, a particularly potent opioid that, if inhaled or comes in contact with the mouth or eyes, can cause someone to overdose, according to the Center for Disease Control.
“I’ve been in the business for 30 years and I have never seen anything like this,” says Wiseman, whose Easton, Massachusetts-based crime scene cleanup company, 24Trauma, was commissioned to clean up the grim aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. “Fentanyl has changed the ballgame.”
24Trauma is part of a thriving, little known industry that is as fragmented as it is lightly regulated. At one end of the spectrum are small, untrained ambulance chasing outfits; at the other, are large operations that have contracts with law enforcement agencies and local governments, certified to handle and dispose of biohazard medical waste.
As the opioid epidemic rages across the country, this niche industry is experiencing a boom. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, according to numbers from the CDC. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, fentanyl, which is stronger than heroin and available via prescription, is now being made illegally to boost heroin’s potency.
In New England, one of regions where the opioid epidemic has hit hardest, fentanyl is involved in over half of all overdose deaths, the New York Times reports. As a result, 24Trauma has become the go-to bio-hazmat contractor for fentanyl contamination sites in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. It’s landed contracts with the DEA, various police departments, along with two major rental car companies (rental cars are a common backdrop for fentanyl users and dealers).
All this has been a boon to Wiseman’s company, which in the past two-and-a-half years has ballooned from 35 employees to 90. “We’ve grown because of the opioid epidemic,” says Wiseman, who’s also expanded from two to five offices. Each week–for between $5,000 to $50,000 a job–his company decontaminates half a dozen rental cars, along with residential homes, where drug dealers typically protect themselves by wearing full-face respirators. Last summer, when a batch of heroin was cut with too much fentanyl, 24Trauma was called in to clean up homes and public bathrooms in Brockton, Massachusetts, where 35 people overdosed.
What remains both the biggest challenge and opportunity for the industry is solving the problem of cleaning up fentanyl safely. “How to effectively neutralize fentanyl is our industry’s million dollar question,” says Thomas Licker, president of the American Bio Recovery Association, an organization that certifies biohazard recovery technicians. For other biohazardous materials or drugs–like blood and crystal meth–there are standards set by federal government or state agencies that mandate environmental limits and remediation guidelines. But no standards or accepted protocols currently exist for fentanyl cleanup in residential spaces, says Licker. “Fentanyl and its analogues are the scariest things we are dealing with on an everyday basis,” he says. “These substances are weapons of mass destruction, in my opinion.”
Companies are now racing to develop what could become the EPA-registered solution to deactivate fentanyl. First Line Technologies, a Virginia-based chemical company, already has a popular solution on the market called Dahlgren Decon that claims to neutralize fentanyl in five minutes.
The company licensed the chemical from the U.S. Navy to sell to the broader U.S. military market for its original use–cleaning up after chemical warfare attacks. But First Line’s CEO Amit Kapoor found a new application after testing it on fentanyl with a third party lab. In the last year, Kapoor’s business has managed to expand its customer base from the U.S. military to all law enforcement agencies across the federal and state level, as well as private companies including Bio-One, Servpro–and 24Trauma.
“It’s our blockbuster chemical,” says Kapoor, noting that sales for Dahlgren Decon have increased the company’s revenue by millions of dollars. “We’ve found a whole new customer base and we’re trying to keep up,” he says. “We’re growing exponentially.”