ATLANTA - Before Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic chemist Erin Tracy tests drugs samples, she puts on her coat, a particle mask, goggles and gloves. All of this is designed to keep her from coming in contact with a frightening new ingredient in heroin, known as carfentanil.
"This is definitely a very scary drug," says Deneen Kilcrease, who manages the chemistry section of the GBI Crime Lab. "It's probably the scariest I've seen in my 20 years here."
So the GBI's lab is stepping up safety procedures, asking chemists to not just wear masks, but to test suspected heroin samples under ventilation hoods. Coworkers are to work more closely together and keep an eye on each other, should one of them be overcome.
It's an uneasy time, says Tracy.
"We see cocaine all the time, we see meth, and there is a level where you get desensitized to it," she says. "But then, when you have something like this come through, it is like a whole new wave of, 'Wow, this is really dangerous. And I need to focus 100% of my attention on the task at hand.'"
For two months, Deneen Kilcrease, has been reading about carfentanil in online reports from other crime labs.
It's been linked to hundreds of fatal overdoses in Ohio.
She's read reports of first responders having to use the overdose reversal drug naloxone "4, 5 or even 6 times" to try to save cafentanil overdose victims.
"Carfentanil is the most potent commercial opiate out there, period," says Kilcrease. "And, it is absolutely not approved for human use whatsoever."
But Carfentanil is being mixed into heroin to increase the high users experience. It's said to be 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, the drug linked to the singer Prince's fatal overdose.
"And so what makes it so dangerous is that it only takes a flake, literally half a grain of sand, to be fatal to a human being," says Kilcrease. "And it can be absorbed or it can be inhaled."
She holds up a vial containing 2 or 3 tiny flakes of detergent. They're so small you have to look closely to see them.
"This is enough of an amount equivalent to carfentanil to tranquilize a 2,000 pound elephant," she says. "This is also enough to be dangerous, and potentially deadly, to 2,000 people."
The GBI is now adding warning stickers on evidence bags containing carfentanil, alerting law enforcement officers not to open the bags.
The lab has identified a handful of cases of carfentanil from different seizures in Georgia. But Kilcrease worries this is just a taste of what's to come.
"And what's scary about that is, if we're seeing carfentanil in the crime lab at the GBI, we know it's on the streets of Atlanta," she says. "And that's why it's so important to get this word out."