Why you should care
Because it's not just users who can get sick from this drug.
The nightmare scenario for narcotics specialist John “Jake” Kelton goes as follows.
A man smuggles a pen filled with fentanyl onto a flight from New York to Los Angeles. Somewhere over Las Vegas, he flings the pen’s contents into the aisle. A dozen passengers immediately fall unconscious. With fentanyl in their lungs, they’ll have six minutes before they overdose.
“You’re going to see panic at 37,000 feet,” Kelton says. “You’re not going to have enough Narcan to help everyone. You’d have to have drums of it. And the sad thing is, the pilot will never land that plane in time.”
Although it sounds like a psychological thriller, incidents of open-air fentanyl exposure have been recorded in increasing amounts since 2016, when the cheap, synthetic opioid exploded across the Midwest. That year, the Drug Enforcement Administration released a memo alerting police departments about fentanyl’s threat in “small amounts.” In March 2017, a patrol officer in East Liverpool, Ohio, Chris Green, had to be rushed to the emergency room after he brushed an “unknown powder” off his uniform. In August 2018, at the Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe, Ohio, 29 officers, first responders and nurses were sped to the hospital after an inmate blew three grams of heroin-fentanyl mix around his cell. Ross ran entirely out of lifesaving Narcan.
With police departments continuing to buff up their white powder policies, even as some experts warn the fears are overblown, the question of how to prevent a chemical disaster is not just a speculative pitch to Delta Air Lines executives. Catastrophes are already happening.
I put [a meth kingpin] in jail for five years, and I still get Christmas cards from him every year.
The idea arrived at 9:30 pm, June 14, 2017 — he remembers the precise time — when Kelton, 54, was staying at his second home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, training local law enforcement on “how to invest in meth labs and buy narcotics.” On the news was a story about two patrol officers who had overdosed due to fentanyl exposure on the job. Kelton, who worked as a forensic scientist for the Pennsylvania State Police for nine years, was taken aback when the TV reporter said the substance went through the officers’ skin.
“That’s impossible,” thought Kelton. He knew the exposure came from inhalation, not from touch. “That’s like pulling a rhinoceros through a garden hose.”
A week and a half later, he met with Tom Nachtman, a product manager for InstaCote in Erie, Michigan, urging him to reshape a “deployable spray” into a patented mist that could cover unidentified powders and stop them from dispersing into the air. In November 2017, Kelton finished a working prototype of Bloc: a 4-inch tall canister that could disperse (without air) a translucent orange mist that cures into a membrane. When the powder is under such a film, Kelton thought, any possibility of inhaling passive fentanyl would be completely eliminated.
Along with Nachtman, Kelton brought on a Cleveland, Ohio-based investor named Joe Lopez to try and sell Bloc to police chiefs across the country. Kelton, a father of three, put his career on hold. “We invested millions,” he says. “Everything in my life is tied up by this right now.”
A self-described black sheep of his family, Kelton grew up in Pittsburgh as a kid piqued by a life in the sciences. To fund a bachelor’s degree at the University of California in chemistry and biology, he enlisted in the Marines as a police officer. A self-motivated fast talker, Kelton landed a job in 1996 as a forensic scientist with the Pennsylvania State Police in charge of everything from “prepping the SWAT teams to interviewing meth lab cooks.” Starting in 2009, he led an undercover investigation into the Barber family, a $1 million ring of methamphetamine makers hidden in the hills of Mercer County. The resulting takedown of Rockne “Rocky” Barber and 60 other participants would earn Kelton an agent of the year award from the Pennsylvania Narcotic Officers’ Association, and spark his nuanced philosophy on drug traffickers.
“When you first go in there, undercover, you think they’re all bad people — but they’re not,” Kelton says. “Most of them are just like you or me.” He smiles in a type of nostalgia. “I mean, I put [Barber] in jail for five years, and I still get Christmas cards from him every year.”
Around the same time Barber was being arraigned, one of Kelton’s nephews in Pittsburgh died from a heroin overdose. Appalled by the negligence, Kelton cut off contact with his family shortly after (“I’ve never even smoked a joint,” Kelton claims). Since Bloc’s official release in February, he spends most days managing the company out of his garage in Erie, Pennsylvania, or driving around neighboring states to convert hospital CEOs or college lab techs. He’s sold Bloc in canister form ($40 a pop) to 28 police departments this year, and he says the federal Department of Homeland Security is considering a purchase for TSA agents.
The Painesville Police Department in Ohio was his first customer last November. The town of about 20,000 has seen fentanyl overdoses skyrocket from zero in 2015 to nearly 70 last year. Lieutenant Toby Burgett, who knew Kelton by reputation, bought 48 canisters. “He’s been a narc guy for a while,” Burgett says. “He knows drugs. And he knows what he’s talking about — that this is scary.”
But how legitimate is the scare? Critics often note that the media’s reportage on exposure can be vague, and officer reactions may be psychosomatic. “We believe that such responses to passive casualties from fentanyl are excessive,” Lewis Nelson and Jeanmarie Perrone, two university experts in emergency medicine, wrote for health policy site STAT News. “[They] may actually interfere with the ability of first responders and others to do their jobs.” (Nelson and Perrone did not respond to calls for comment.)
Kelton maintains the fentanyl exposure fears are real and says he’ll “calmly debate” anyone who tries to prove otherwise (he once deactivated Bloc’s Twitter page due to “total bullshit” needless arguments with strangers). He’s easily irritated by the status quo for officers but thinks this problem is bigger: He wants to get it on the radar for the Centers for Disease Control and major airlines.
“People said the same thing about the bulletproof vest when it came out,” Kelton says. “And, well, look how that turned out.”