(Delmarvanow.com) -- The central battleground in America’s war on super-potent synthetic opioids is a concrete and corrugated steel mail facility at one of the country's busiest airports.
Inside the cavernous depot on the edge of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, a team of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers don masks and latex gloves for this dangerous work: sifting through hundreds of packages for a sliver of fentanyl, the deadly white powder at the center of a new overdose crisis.
There are few hints about which packages, among the 1 million that come through this New York mail center every day, will contain fentanyl or another synthetic opioid. The fentanyl usually comes in just a few ounces at a time — hidden inside an innocuous-looking business envelope, or a tightly taped box, or disguised as a bottle of pills.
Besides their own instincts and training, the CBP officers have three tools: a creaky old X-ray machine, a borrowed handheld laser that can peek inside packages, and a sleek shepherd named Gini, one of a few canines newly trained to detect fentanyl.
That trifecta is actually a dramatic improvement from a year ago, when officers only had the X-ray machine and seized just a handful of fentanyl shipments coming into the U.S.
“We’ve gotten a lot better at figuring out the threat, figuring out where it’s coming from, and identifying those packages that we need to treat as high risk,” said Frank Russo, the port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at John F. Kennedy International Airport. “It’s mainly coming from China and Hong Kong, destined for every part of the United States.”
In fiscal year 2016, Russo’s officers seized seven fentanyl packages; this year, they’ve seized 64 so far, with another half-dozen suspected fentanyl packages in the pipeline for testing. Sixty percent of U.S.-bound international mail comes through the JFK facility, Russo noted, and customs officers here have seized about 40% of the fentanyl pouring into the country.
Customs officers cannot examine every one of the 1 million packages that pass through the JFK facility every day. So they use information from law enforcement and other sources to help them narrow their search. Country of origin is a key factor.
Most of the fentanyl coming into the U.S. is from China, which has a robust pharmaceutical industry and thousands of underground labs manufacturing counterfeit and illicit drugs. So shipments from that country are prime targets, and every fentanyl package found yields new information about what to look for next.
“The mail is now a central front in the whole fight against drugs,” said Richard Baum, the acting drug czar, told USA TODAY during a Sept. 8 visit to the facility.
How much fentanyl are customs officers missing? There’s no way to tell for sure, but local police around the country are finding fentanyl everywhere — along with the drug’s overdose victims.
Just take a few examples: Earlier this month, a woman allegedly dropped more than two dozen bags of fentanyl outside a Pennsylvania elementary school. In Cincinnati, police seized five pounds of heroin, fentanyl and other opioids during a drug bust in July. In Maryland, the number of overdose deaths from fentanyl increased 137% in the first three months of 2017, killing 372 people.
Nationally, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids claimed the lives of more than 20,000 Americans in 2016, more than double the fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2015, according to a preliminary count by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those numbers — and the human toll behind them — provide strong motivation for Russo’s team at the JFK facility.
“Every little bit that I do, it just makes me feel good to be able to get it off the street,” said one CBP officer, who asked that his name be withheld to protect his safety. "This is what really gets me giddy … I just love that hunt.”
He and others aren’t just looking for fentanyl, of course. During the early September visit with Baum and other officials, the officers examined dozens of suspect packages filled with all kinds of illicit goods.
One contained a bottle of date-rape drug known as GBL. Another box was stuffed with more than 10 kilos of an erectile dysfunction drug. In a holding room, the table was crowded with other items, from counterfeit money orders to a 6-ounce bag of carfentanil, an opioid that’s about 100 times more potent than fentanyl and meant to be used an elephant tranquilizer.
Amid all the contraband, fentanyl remains a top priority here. And officers at the mail center said the search for the drug has become more fruitful since they got the hand-held laser and the fentanyl-detecting canines.
The laser — on loan from the company that makes it — is a relatively new technology that allows the officers to determine what drug is inside a package, without opening it. That’s critical with fentanyl because just a few granules of the powder can be fatal.
The officers still must lab-test the drug before they can seize it, because the laser isn’t foolproof. But the machine gives them a pretty solid idea of whether they’re dealing with fentanyl, and thus they need to put on full protective gear and move to their isolated detention room before opening it for testing.
The newly trained dogs have also transformed the CBP’s work, tracking down 11 of the 64 confirmed fentanyl packages seized so far in 2017. The CBP has only had the specially trained dogs for a couple of months.
“They’re able to screen 100 packages in … probably 10 minutes,” Russo said. “It would take our officers probably an entire day” to sift through the same number.
It’s still like looking for a needle in the haystack, though. So it’s no wonder if Russo and other officials say they could use more of just about everything. A new X-ray machine. More lasers (and not on temporary loan). Fresh resources to clear their backlog of suspicious packages waiting to be lab tested.
And perhaps the most helpful: advanced electronic data that would allow the CBP to target suspect mail packages with a computer program, instead of manually.
“If we get the advanced data, we’d be in a much better place,” Russo said.
Congress is considering legislation to require foreign shippers to provide that electronic information, but the U.S. Postal Service says that’s not an easy request given there are 192 postal services across the globe — many in poor countries that don’t have that capacity.
In the meantime, Russo and others said they would keep making inroads using the tools they have.
“We’re doing a lot better than we were a year ago,” said Baum, the acting drug czar.