Allegheny County sees spike in overdose deaths

January 27, 2014
Stamp bags labeled "Theraflu" contain heroin that was linked to an increase in overdose deaths in Allegheny County.

Two types of heroin blamed for a spike in overdose deaths in Allegheny County have been found in Washington County, although the coroner has not investigated any deaths as a result.

The office of the Allegheny County medical examiner said in a news release Monday that it is continuing to investigate the increase of apparent overdose deaths. There have been 15 probable overdose deaths over the past five days as compared with an average of five in the same time frame. Stamp bags marked “Theraflu” were found at the scene of at least four deaths, while bags marked “Bud Ice” and “Income Tax” were found at several others.

“In the last month, I’ve seen stamp bags of both ‘Theraflu’ and ‘Income Tax’ that we’ve seized or purchased,” said Rick Gluth, director of the Washington County District Attorney’s Drug Task Force. “It is definitely in Washington County.”

Washington County Coroner Tim Warco said Monday that to his knowledge, his office has not investigated any death that has involved heroin from a bag stamped “Theraflu.” There have been four potential overdose deaths in the county this year, but the exact cause won’t be known until toxicology test results are returned.

The first death involving an overdose of “Theraflu” was reported Wednesday, followed by two more on Thursday and another on Friday, a spokesman for the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office said Monday. The deaths are part of the rash reported to the office. Bags marked “Bud Ice” and “Income Tax” were found at some of the other overdose scenes, he added. “We put out a release Friday indicating there was potentially a bad batch of drugs out there.”

“It is very concerning because it is widespread and not tied to any certain neighborhood,” he said.

While two deaths tied to “Theraflu” were reported in Pittsburgh, one death was investigated in Coraopolis and the other in Harrison City. Deaths involving “Bud Ice” have been reported in Westmoreland and Armstrong counties.

A preliminary sampling of the stamp bags labeled “Theraflu” has revealed the presence of fentanyl. Fentanyl is a potent pain killer, and is prescribed by legitimate medical practitioners, often in the form of a patch.

Canonsburg police Detective Sgt. Al Coghill has not yet seen “Theraflu” in the borough.

“We’ve had a few overdoses this year, but that was not involved that I know of,” Coghill said. The pipeline to here is from Pittsburgh. So I imagine we will see it eventually.”

Coghill said if the source is from Mexico or South America, upper level dealers will often change the names on the stamp bags they distribute.

“The stamp bag could be marked one thing today and something else tomorrow,” the detective added.

Washington police Chief Chris Luppino said Monday that in the past, heroin users would travel to Pittsburgh to purchase the drug, but buy it here now since it has become more available. The chief said there were two overdoses in the city over the weekend. Both patients survived.

South Strabane Township police were notified Thursday by the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office that a 31-year-old Bridgeville man they had arrested on drug and retail theft charges had died of a possible overdose. The medical examiner’s office said the cause is pending toxicology results, and a spokeswoman could not comment on whether if his death was related to the “Theraflu” heroin.

At the time of his arrest, South Strabane police found him with 12 empty stamp bags of heroin and three full ones. Police were later notified by the Washington County Jail that the 31-year-old and his alleged accomplice had thrown up a large amount of suspected heroin they apparently had ingested.

The drug chemistry section of the medical examiner’s crime lab is conducting further testing on the different types of stamp bags to determine the presence of fentanyl. Blood and urine samples of the suspected overdose victims also will be tested.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane said Monday afternoon there have been 22 recent deaths in Western Pennsylvania associated with the “deadly mix of heroin and the narcotic fentanyl.”

The heroin with these specific stamps have also been found in Armstrong, Butler, Lawrence and Beaver counties.

Kane said her office is working with other law enforcement agencies about the problem, and also alerting hospitals to be on the lookout for these heroin stamp bags.

Anyone with tips is urged to call Kane’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigations at 1-800-442-8006.

Kathie O. Warco has covered the police beat and transportation for the Observer-Reporter for more than 25 years. She graduated from Duquesne University with a degree in journalism.

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