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The heat is on: County warns about opioid use in extreme temps

Posted at 5:36 PM, Jun 11, 2024

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — With the summer heat officially here, Pima County is getting the word out about how deadly the elements can be when combined with opioids, particularly fentanyl.

Pima County experienced its deadliest year for overdoses in 2023, with fentanyl as the primary cause.

Seniors aged 60 to 70 accounted for the largest increase in fatalities. The Pima County Health Department warned that that cohort in particular is at risk of heightened danger from opioid use during the summer heat.

Data released by the county reveals a staggering rise in overdose deaths among seniors, jumping from 32 in 2017 to 103 in 2023.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is significantly more potent than heroin and morphine, making it particularly lethal.

Mark Person, a program manager at the Pima County Health Department, explained the severity of the crisis.

“The last statistic I saw was 6 out of every 10 pills contain a potentially lethal dose,” Person said. “If you’re really intoxicated, you may not even know that your body is starting to overheat, and may not need to seek help or even drink water because you’re just not with it.”

The county's health department attributes the rise in deaths partly to the accessibility of cheap fentanyl from Mexico and the increased use of multiple drugs.

Chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity also exacerbate the risk for seniors.

Person emphasized the impact of the extreme Arizona heat on overdose risks.

“Since we live in an extreme climate where temperatures get in triple digits, when temperature rises, overdose risk also increases, especially for people in their 60s,” he said.

Despite the grim statistics, there is cause for optimism.

"I would say worst-case scenario, it’s gonna kind of plateau or level off. There’s no way it’s gonna exceed what we did last year at this point,” Person noted.

Officials urge seniors and their families to be vigilant, utilize available resources, and consider alternatives for pain management, such as physical therapy and exercise.

For those needing help, resources include local crisis lines and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) support line.

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Eddie Celaya is a multimedia journalist at KGUN 9. Born in Tucson and raised in the Phoenix area, Eddie is a life-long Arizonan and graduate of the University of Arizona who loves the desert and mountains and hates the cold. Previously, Eddie worked in print media at the Arizona Daily Star. Share your story ideas with Eddie at edward.celaya@kgun9.com, or by connecting on Facebook or Instagram.