Alberta health officials say two recent deaths confirm an opioid deadlier than fentanyl is circulating in the province.
"Carfentanil is about 100 times more toxic than fentanyl and about 10,000 times more toxic than morphine," Dr. Karen Grimsrud, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, told reporters at a news conference Friday.
"An amount as small as a grain of sand can kill you."
Grimsrud said the drug was confirmed this week in the bodies of two men in their 30s, one from the Edmonton area and one from Calgary.
Dr. Elizabeth Brooks-Lim, Alberta's chief acting medical examiner, said carfentanil is difficult to detect, but that her office developed a test this week that was able to find it.
The drug is used to sedate large animals, like elephants, and Grimsrud said it could be present in other illegal drugs circulating in the province.
The discovery opens a new front on a war against fentanyl, an opioid that has proven deadly in small amounts and continues to take a mounting death toll. The drugs kill by reducing breathing functions to such a low level, the brain is starved of oxygen.
Grimsrud said there were 159 fentanyl-related deaths in Alberta in the first six months of this year, compared with 139 over the same time period last year.
The province is working to combat fentanyl on many fronts, including providing Naloxone kits for lifesaving emergency aid to overdose victims.
"The use of illicit opioids is having a devastating toll in our province. It is important that we do everything we can to support Albertans affected by addictions," Associate Health Minister Brandy Payne said in a statement.
"We have taken a range of steps to address this crisis, including opening new opioid dependency treatment services, working with physicians on the way opioids are prescribed and stepping up our surveillance tools.
"But let me be clear: Our work is not done."
RCMP Supt. Yvon de Champlain said a cache of the drug that would have yielded 50 million lethal doses was seized in a raid this past summer.
"That number of deaths is unfathomable for us to comprehend," said de Champlain.
He said Mounties are working with provincial and international police and health agencies to shut down illegal carfentanil producers.
"This discovery is deeply concerning to our government and we are working closely with our law enforcement partners to ensure Albertans are aware of the dangers of these deadly opioids," Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said in a statement.
"We support our police services to continue their crucial work seizing illicit drugs and using their expertise to share information between jurisdictions."