The Dangerous Battle Against Deadly Fentanyl

This synthetic opioid, often mixed with heroin, is so toxic that people easily overdose and drug agents don special suits to handle it.
8:54 | 01/05/17

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Transcript for The Dangerous Battle Against Deadly Fentanyl
Tonight we take you inside the battle against a deadly narcotic. A synthetic painkiller 100 times more powerful than morphine. As a street drug it's far more potent than even the purest forms of heroin. Fentanyl is taking the opioid epidemic to a new level of urgency, especially in new Hampshire where the monster drug kills far more people than gun violence. What is the Dea doing to stop it from spreading? ABC senior justice correspondent Pierre Thomas reports from the front lines. Reporter: Lubbock, Texas. Covered head to toe, using oxygen tanks to breathe. You'd think these officers are about to come in contact with a deadly disease. But this is an alleged illegal drug lab. Us being here next door, regular stuff like that, we could have been exposed. Reporter: Inside officers search for something so lethal and toxic that law enforcement can't afford to take any chances. All of this because they're about to come in contact with fentanyl. A synthetic opioid often mixed with heroin but up to 40 times more powerful. Leaving a deadly trail across the country. This heroin overdose is one of more than 80 in just three days around the tri-state. As heroin sweeps the nation, fentanyl is making it even more dangerous. Now users are taking it in bootleg pill form mixed with god knows what. In 2015 the number of opioid deaths surpassed 30,000, fuelled in part by the surge in fentanyl overdoses, far outpacing deaths by gun-related homicides. So toxic that Dea sent out a warning to police around the country with this chilling story. Grabbed the bag and I closed it up. Forcing the air out to get a good seal. When I did that, a bunch of it poofed up into the air. Right into our face. We ended up inhaling it. I felt like my body was shutting down. You actually felt like you were dying. You have to be that careful every day? Yes. Reporter: I went to a law enforcement laboratory in new Hampshire to see how they're battling the deadly drug. This would be an example of heroin, a lethal dose of a typical batch of heroin. And then this vial would be the typical dose of fentanyl. You can barely see it. Correction. The air quality is not a level that you can breathe inside these fentanyl mills. We're forced to wear air packs and masks to breathe fresh air while we're in these fentanyl mills. Oxygen tanks. We suit up to get a sense of what the agents are going through. Step into it. Got it. Put this on the face. Deep breath. There you go. This is not that fun, I can tell you. It's very cumbersome. Labor intensive. Putting on one of these suits and trying to take a dangerous material out of a crime scene. Reporter: Since they're so difficult and exhausting to maneuver in, agents can only wear them for 15 minutes at a time. Fentanyl nearly killed 21-year-old Morgan Gillman who said she was looking for a stronger high after more than a year on heroin. I picked up a large amount of fentanyl. And then did what I would normally do. Then on my drive home, I was doing about 80 on the highway when I od'd at the wheel. Reporter: She crashed, waking up handcuffed to a hospital bed. Did that make you want to give up the drug or did you still have a desire for it? I was so afraid of detoxing. Reporter: Morgan lives at ground zero for the epidemic, the tiny state of New Hampshire. A safe state, typically fewer than 20 homicides a year. But there were more than 400 overdose deaths in 2015. Around 70% of those were fentanyl-related. Fed officials say they expect overdose deaths in 2016 to come close to 500 once all the data is in. Again, overwhelmingly fentanyl-related. I've been involved in the forensic field in New Hampshire and look at the crack epidemics and methamphetamine. We've never had deaths associated with it like we do now. Reporter: The number two ranking ai official at Dea says he's never seen anything like it. If anything can be likened to a weapon of mass destruction, what it does to a community, it's fentanyl. Reporter: The synthetic opioid cheaper and easier to produce than heroin, a gold mine for the cartels. When you're seeing is sophisticated criminal organizations. They understand the addiction issue is present here. They are doing everything they can to control the market. Yet another case of Mexican cartels influencing what's happening here stateside? Absolutely. I mean, I think people on the west coast and silicon valley working on the new iPhone, I think the cartels are working on the next product they'll market to the addiction base in the United States. I got to tell you, across the country, they don't care who dies. Reporter: It's now being distributed throughout the country, coming not just from Mexico but also China, spread to secret locations. Warehouses, apartment complexes, homes. Drug dealers sometimes using something as simple as a blend tore mix it. It's like Russian roulette when it hits the streets. If too much fentanyl gets mixed in, people die. Authorities are now trying to target the sellers, believed to be the merchants of death. We're going to breach at the same time. Whoever sees them first, just be cognizant. Reporter: 5:00 A.M. The Dea has teamed up with local police to take down a suspected dealer. That's the dealer with his hands up. Reporter: The suspect is apprehended. Next agents search his house. So the search is still under way but they've already found what they believe is product? It is. This is what was located inside the residence. What we have here is a finger of suspected fentanyl with maybe some heroin. Definitely fentanyl. This is broken-up -- you can tell. Reporter: Later that day, two more arrests. Is that the guy? Yeah. Reporter: Both accused of selling a heroin-fentanyl combo that killed its users. Two people in a span of an hour, less than a couple of miles apart. Reporter: Across the country, the arrests are just one weapon in the war on drugs. How much heroin did you use? Reporter: Some police have started releasing photos of addicted parents passing out in their cars, their toddlers strapped in their car seats, hoping to shame them. The women unable to move or speak in an apparent heroin overdose. Reporter: In Manchester, some measures also include compassionate nonpunitive approaches. There, firehouses have become places of refuge for users coming in off the streets. We have a guy walking over right now. Hey, how you doing? You made it through the night. I'm back. Reporter: Every day a steady stream of people who often use fentanyl and heroin come here looking for an emergency lifeline. What are we doing? Help going to serenity place. For what exactly? Drug abuse. Which drug? Marijuana, crack, heroin. Reporter: He gets his vitals checked and evaluated for a recovery program he hopes will break the pattern of abuse. A so-called safe station where there's no risk of arrest. Police are working extremely hard to take the drugs off the streets. They're hitting it hard this way. We're trying to get people in recovery. We're hitting it hard this way. You've got to hit this problem from so many different angles. Reporter: All hands on deck for a state under siege, its victims many. You can't say no even though you know it can kill you and it has nearly killed you. You can't stop. Reporter: Natasha Simmons used heroin for years but had never even heard of fentanyl until she ended up in the hospital the first of three overdoses. I feel like I'm finally ready now. I don't know why it took so long. It hurts. It hurt a lot of people around me. It cost you a lot? It did. It's taken everything from me. I've lost everything in my life besides my life at this point. And I don't want anybody else or anybody else's family for that matter to go through that. When was your last od? Six days ago. Been clear six days. You're fresh to this process? Yep. Scary. What brought you to this point? Heroin addiction. Reporter: It's a struggle Natasha hopes to overcome. Now 90 days clean, thanks to the help of others like Morgan who's been sober for seven months. How do you spell your last name? Reporter: Is working not just to save her own life but others. Do you feel like you have a future now? I do. I have a job helping people who are just like me. Everybody cares about each other so much. I get to sing at a recovery rally on Saturday. Do you feel lucky to have survived? Yeah. I'm grateful every single day. ??? Reporter: Grateful to have survived, and trying to keep others from choosing her painful path. For "Nightline," Pierre Thomas in Manchester, New Hampshire.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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