Claudia Tenney – Can the fentanyl seized by officials at U.S. borders kill every American seven times over?
The United States is experiencing a major influx of a synthetic opioid called fentanyl, and the drug is being blamed for a surge in deaths.
Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that of the more than 100,000 people who died from drug overdoses in the U.S. between May 2020 and April 2021, almost two-thirds were linked to fentanyl or similar synthetic opioids.
In an April 1 press release, U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., raised the alarm about fentanyl being smuggled into the United States.
“In Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21), 11,201 pounds of fentanyl were seized by Customs and Border Protection, which is enough to kill every American nearly seven times over,” Tenney said.
Tenney argued that the Biden administration should back off its intention to terminate Title 42, a public health order that has been in place since March 2020 that allows officials to expel migrants at U.S. land borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (On April 26, the administration said it would abide by a judge’s order to keep Title 42 in place for now.)
We won’t offer a view on whether extending Title 42 would reduce the prevalence of fentanyl in the United States. However, we decided to take a closer look at Tenney’s statement about fentanyl and how deadly it is. Tenney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
On the scale of fentanyl confiscations, Tenney correctly cited the data. U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures show that 11,201 pounds of fentanyl were seized nationwide during fiscal year 2021, just as Tenney said. This represented an increase of 134% over the previous fiscal year.
Most of it was seized at the southwest border at official ports of entry.
But could it really kill every American nearly seven times over?
There’s little question that fentanyl is a deadly substance. It’s up to 50 times more powerful than heroin, and up to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the CDC. Many overdoses are occurring because “drug dealers have been mixing fentanyl with other drugs including heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine” due to its low cost and potency, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. This heightens the risk of a fatal dose.
Experts say that two milligrams is a widely accepted lethal dose for fentanyl.
To vet Tenney’s math, we reached out to Lewis S. Nelson, a professor and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and director of its division of medical toxicology.
Tenney’s numbers, Nelson said, are basically on target.
Nelson said that 11,201 pounds amounts to 5,080,688 grams, or 5,080,688,000 milligrams. If 2 milligrams is a lethal dose, then the amount seized would equal 2,540,344,000 lethal doses.
The projected U.S. population for 2022 is roughly 332.4 million, so the amount seized would be enough to kill every American 7.64 times over, which is close to what Tenney said.
There’s one caveat: There is some variation in the lethal dose for body size and tolerance from past exposure.
In 2019, in looking at a similar claim, PolitiFact West Virginia interviewed Timothy J. Pifer, the director of the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory and a specialist on fentanyl and its lethality.
He said that some bigger individuals with higher levels of past exposure might only die with a 3-milligram dose, rather than 2 milligrams. In addition, Pifer said, how pure the fentanyl is can make a difference in its lethality.
In all, these variations could change the math on the margins. Still, simply taking the statement as a way to understand the scope of the fentanyl being seized, Tenney’s calculations are reasonable.
Tenney said that in 2021, “11,201 pounds of fentanyl were seized by Customs and Border Protection, which is enough to kill every American nearly seven times over.”
She is correct that 11,201 pounds of fentanyl were seized nationwide in 2021, and she’s essentially accurate about how deadly that supply could be. Using a standard fatal dose of 2 milligrams, the amount seized in 2021 would have been enough to kill every American 7.64 times over. The fatal dose could vary depending on body size, past exposure to fentanyl, and purity, possibly affecting the calculation on the margins.
We rate the statement Mostly True.