West Virginia Fights Back: Forensics behind opioid crisis

MORGANTOWN, W.Va (WDTV) - Tackling our state’s opioid epidemic has become a state-wide effort from community members, doctors, and also students.

For some of the students in our area, studying the forensics behind substance abuse has led to restrictions on how deep they can actually dive when it comes to their studies.

As one WVU expert told 5 News a few weeks ago, the substance abuse problem is one they don’t feel has even peaked yet. Since the problem has become so severe, professors in Morgantown have to take various approaches to keep students safe.

Suzanne Bell is the Chair of the Forensic and Investigative Science at West Virginia University. She explained how her studies relate to investigations in overdose situations.

"Now we're dealing with drugs that are much more potent and dangerous to work with," Bell said.

Bell thinks back to when she studied this as a student herself. She looks back on the years, and she’s able to see how much this issue has progressed and how there are practices and approaches these days that weren’t believable at one point in time.

"You see people who have to wear full suits, full moon suits," Bell said. "Complete HAZMAT suits."

Back to the idea about trying to keep up with the issue – Bell explained how it’s not slowing down.

"Now we have to turn to additional safety protocols that were unimaginable to somebody like me when I working in forensic laboratories," Bell said. "It's really something that has just come up since say 2010."

Specifically in the fields, the practice has changed over time as the issue has become more dangerous, not just for those playing the game, but those trying to study and put a stop to it.

"One of the recent estimates is that now every 7-10 days we see a new compound that's identified by Drug Enforcement Administration," Bell said. "The forensic community cannot keep up with that."

So how do they implement practices in the classroom when the issue has become so dangerous? Some pieces simply stay out of the lab.

"The drugs have become so much more potent and so much more dangerous," Bell said. "Many lab analysts now have to have Narcan with them when they work."

"We can teach them up to a certain level of safety which we do, and we have in the past even had respirators for students when they're working with methamphetamine but now you literally have full HAZMAT and we can't prepare them for that," Bell said.