It’s hard to look at the mug-shot of the 60-year-old woman charged with tampering with forensic drug evidence (basically, stealing police-confiscated cocaine) without wondering how things got to this point. I mean, surely they weed out the felons, and the known addicts, and do a background check, and then make you pee in a cup before they even hire you for a job like this. Right?
So just exactly how can it happen that a person changes, in a few boring decades – and we’re speaking theoretically here – from being a tech with a decent job and whopping benefits, to a rattled addict snorting residue off the counters?
Well the answer may be found in a nasty little insider secret that’s not commonly known – not even among many people who work in the field. Just to be clear, we’re not talking about a theory, but something that’s been well-studied, verified, and documented.
Just not, ahem, publicized…
What is this nasty little secret?
For years, researchers have shown that people who work with any addictive substance on a regular basis – including nurse-anesthetists, anesthesiologists, people who train narcotics/military dogs, and forensic lab techs – these people are silently and unknowingly dosed, on a regular basis, with the measurable, highly addictive substances that float in the air at their work.
Does the whole idea of invisible floating addiction sound like a plume trail of paranoia to you? Let’s take some specific examples. One of the more chilling, early studies in this field was of your friendly anesthesiologists.
Turns out that breathing a bit of the downstream exhale of sedated patients started, after a few years, to get to him (or her). Studies showed that not only were many anesthesiologists unknowingly dosed with measurable amounts from breathing the exhale of patients, but they also actually went into symptoms of withdrawal over the weekend. The anesthesiologists weren’t, for the most part, consciously aware of what was going on – they just reported that they really did not feel like themselves until a few hours after they were back at work Monday morning.
Kind of disturbing to think of your life being on the line after a weekend car-crash as your local anesthesiologist rushes into your emergency operation with a bad case of the shakes, isn’t it?
Several studies show the effects of second-hand addiction among anesthesiologists. And it’s not just narcotics that are a problem. Small amounts of cocaine have been used clinically to reduce blood loss in many kinds of surgery. Measurable levels of cocaine by-product have been found in the urine of not only the patients, but also the doctors who performed ENT surgery.
When it comes to forensic workers, studies have shown that measurable amounts of metabolized cocaine by-products can be found in their urine just from normal work-day activities. Twenty-nine years of that, and I’m betting you might find yourself jonesing more than the average grandma.
Even when this effect was discovered, you may notice, if you look at the studies, that when it comes to taking protective measures for workers, the talk is about “minimizing” exposure. NOT eliminating exposure. Among dog-trainers, urine by-products of measurable amounts of cocaine were proven to be found even after the usual protective steps (gloves, mask) were taken. Measures have been implemented to dramatically reduce occupational exposure to these microscopic amounts of addictive substances. But we all know that not every department is as well informed, or as conscientious, as they might be.
Clearly, when it comes to committing a crime, no one takes anyone else’s hand and makes her do it. When that cocaine was placed on a scale, no gun was put to anyone’s head. But perhaps, if a lab tech has been working in the field years and years before these studies were released, or if a department wasn’t up on the latest exposure/addiction research, or wasn’t conscientious about enforcing personal protective measures, well, maybe this travesty of justice isn’t completely as one-sided as it might seem.
Jan Gurley is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Doc Gurley.
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