(WVUE) - Protective gear, oxygen tanks and masks are just a few pieces of equipment now being used every time the Drug Enforcement Agency makes a drug bust on a suspected fentanyl lab. During a mock clandestine lab bust, DEA agents suited up with protective gear from head to toe to show us what they do.
Once inside, they say they'll usually encounter a drug dealer mixing ingredients to make fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a dangerous opioid synthetic, often mixed with other drugs. The combination is fueling a deeper addiction across the U.S. and right here in New Orleans.
"You get addicted to this stuff and it takes control of your life," says DEA Special Agent-in-Charge Stephen Azzam.
Fentanyl has become one of the most prominent killers linked to the nation's drug epidemic.
"Distributors and drug dealers realized that there's a very high-profit margin for fentanyl. It takes a very small amount of fentanyl to be equivalent to a normal dosage unit of heroin," says a DEA agent who cannot reveal his identity.
DEA agents say fentanyl is relatively cheap and easy to manufacture. The chemicals used to make it are being shipped through the mail into the U.S. from China.
"So once the chemicals are obtained, it's very easy to mix the chemicals together to then stir it in the necessary time and you get the finished product of fentanyl," says a DEA agent.
That finished product looks just like cocaine and heroin.
"Commonly drug dealers are receiving fentanyl and mixing that into heroin or cocaine or meth and creating a multi-drug compound resulting in a lot of overdose deaths," says the DEA agent.
Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The DEA agent we talked to compares the deadly quantities of fentanyl to a packet of Sweet 'n Low.
"One gram of fentanyl powder, which is what is in a packet of Sweet n' Low, is 400,000 doses in a hospital of 392 lethal doses."
So, one gram of fentanyl can kill 392 people. Once it's mixed with other drugs, there's no way to know exactly how much fentanyl is present.
"I do undercover buys from targets that are distributing fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine."
An undercover agent, whose identity FOX 8 cannot reveal, tells me his job has always been risky, but now the presence of fentanyl in the drugs he's buying makes his job more dangerous than ever.
"Before we just had to worry about the bad guy robbing us, kidnapping us, someone pulling a gun on us, but now we have to be concerned about the substance that we're buying. Are we contaminating ourselves and our fellow workers when we bring it back?" says the undercover agent.
That's because fentanyl can be inhaled through the nose or mouth. It can even be absorbed through the skin and eyes.
"For obvious reasons, I can't purchase this stuff with protective gear on, but as soon as I get back to a safe spot, I hand it over immediately as it's packaged. That way, it can't contaminate any of my co-workers," says the undercover agent.
"It has changed everything about the way we conduct our business," says Azzam.
DEA agents are no longer allowed to test drugs in the field.
"It's because we have to protect our people and protect everyone around us," says Azzam.
Some agents have accidentally overdosed on fentanyl while working on a case. It's the reason why all agents now carry the opioid antidote, Naloxone or Narcan.
"Oftentimes, it will take several applications of Narcan to fully recover from the overdose, so we have to be prepared."
When search warrants are executed on suspected fentanyl labs, the DEA's clandestine laboratory team is called out. After making the initial bust, the team changes into what's called Grade-A suits. They're used to assess the scene.
"Since June we have actually executed warrants on four different laboratories here within the local area," says DEA agent.
Some labs are elaborate, and the dealers are becoming creative with fentanyl.
"Most recently, the federal investigation we've been involved in were the results of a drug dealer taking fentanyl and mixing it with heroin and using a pill press to manufacture a homemade pill and distributing that pill," says the DEA agent.
He says technology has now allowed dealers to create what looks exactly like a pharmacy grade Oxycontin pill, which brings a higher price on the street, but it's actually made up of heroin and fentanyl.
The undercover agent says he remembers buying what he thought was cocaine from a drug dealer.
"We tested it but it didn't test for heroin or cocaine. When we sent it off to the lab, the lab let us know that it was fentanyl," says the undercover agent.
A dose of pure fentanyl is often lethal and drug addicts have no idea what they're using. Agents say many addicts are now chasing a high from the fentanyl instead of heroin or cocaine, they think they've been using.
"I think they should be aware that it might be the last time they use an illegal substance because you don't know what' in it. What's on the street is highly dangerous and way worse than it used to be," says the undercover agent.