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New device gives Franklin County coroner fast answers when a drug overdose is the suspected cause of death

Why it’s so hard to break an opioid addiction

More than half a million people died between 2000 and 2015 from opioid use. In 2017 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the national opioid crisis a public health emergency. We examine what happens to the human body on opioids.
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More than half a million people died between 2000 and 2015 from opioid use. In 2017 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the national opioid crisis a public health emergency. We examine what happens to the human body on opioids.

Franklin County death scene investigators will be able to instantly determine if pills, powders and other items are dangerous narcotics thanks to gee-whiz technology headed to the Mid-Columbia.

Coroner Curtis McGary has been awarded the last of eight TruNarc analyzers available through the Washington Department of Health. A grant will reimburse the county the $25,000 purchase price.

The state is deploying TruNarc to improve information as it works to combat the opioid crisis.

Yakima has one. The other six are assigned to Western Washington.

McGary said his office will share its new technology with Benton County.

Provides fast results

TruNarc uses a laser to analyze pills, powders and other suspicious substances found at death scenes, drawing from a constantly updated library of more than 400 known drugs. The tech comes with dipsticks to sample urine from bodies to confirm overdoses in minutes rather than months.

McGary said the county couldn’t afford the purchase without the grant.

The technology will give law enforcement and others nearly instant information about the drugs circulating at scenes of deaths. It has the added benefit of protecting first responders from accidentally touching or inhaling potentially toxic substances.

He expects to receive the device in two to three months. He’ll begin using it once his office is properly trained.

“It’s going to allow us to notify the Department of Health what kind of drugs are floating around,” he said.

TruNarc - Red - Cocaine Base.jpg
Thermo Scientific™ TruNarc™ Narcotics Analyzer Used by permission of Thermo Fisher Scientific, the copyright owner

The promise of almost instant information after fatalities will give families a clearer view of what happened, sparing them a months-long wait to get toxicology results confirmed by the Washington state Crime Lab. That can speed up the process of issuing a death certificate.

TruNarc renders a reading in less than two minutes. Lab results can take as long as six months.

TruNarc has a 90 percent confirmation rate and won rave reviews after it debuted in King County earlier this year as part of stepped up efforts to identify, monitor and reduce overdose deaths.

Franklin County will pay for the technology but will be fully reimbursed by the health department. The county commission is expected to approve the purchase as part of its routine consent agenda when it meets Tuesday morning.

Safer, more reliable

Under the current system, law enforcement and the coroner rely on experience to identify suspected drugs at the scene. McGary said the machine is more reliable. It’s also safer because officers don’t have to uncap bottles or open capsules to test samples, exposing them to the drugs.

Instead, TruNarc scans the substances in their containers and capsules, leaving containers in place. The device is manufactured by Massachusetts-based Thermo Fischer Scientific.

The technology is tied to rising opioid deaths, though McGary said there have been few overdose deaths in Franklin County so far this year, between three and four.

The exact number isn’t known because McGary is waiting for toxicology results to confirm a death.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.
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