A lab operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technolog (NIST), an agency under the United States Department of Commerce, has collected and processed swabs from individuals with substance use disorders (SUDs) from across Maryland to help detect changes in the illicit drug supply.
The Baltimore Sun reports the lab has identified xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, as an added element to the ongoing opioid epidemic. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the drug, sometimes referred to as “tranq,” is frequently cut with fentanyl and “was involved in 19% of all drug overdose deaths in Maryland in 2021.” Xylazine often results in tissue damage including skin ulcers and abscesses.
The Sun detailed how Jason Bienert, a Cecil County-based nurse who works with a syringe exchange program, discovered the drug in his community:
Bienert asks people seeking clean needles in Cecil to return dirty syringes and the wrappings that held drugs, typically paper bags about the size of a pinkie finger. He swabs the wraps and mails the swabs to the federal lab, where chemists use a system called DART-MS, or direct analysis in real-time mass spectrometry. It’s the same technology used to detect explosive residue at airport security checkpoints.
According to the Maryland Department of Health (MDH), the state has set records for the most unintentional intoxication deaths in both 2020 (2,076 deaths) and 2021 (2,129 deaths). Although xylazine is not included MDH’s statistics, said intoxication deaths are mostly fentanyl-related (1,783 deaths in 2021).