Drug smugglers selling opium laced with lead

Afghan opium traders may be adding lead to their product in order to boost profits, a report suggests.

New field notes released by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention detail multiple cases of lead poisoning among opium users and drug couriers in Iran, the main pathway for Afghani opium to the rest of the world.

The report, compiled by toxicologists Hossein Hassanian-Moghaddam and Nasim Zamani of the Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, in Tehran, Iran, covers cases recorded in 2016, but was released by the CDC in early January, 2018.

The researchers report a first case of lead poisoning in an opium user presenting at the university’s hospital in February, 2016. Over the following eight months, approximately 3000 more users were found to have elevated blood lead levels.

During the same period, 14 couriers caught attempting to move drugs across borders by carrying them in their gastrointestinal tract were also tested. The abdomens of the couriers were scanned using computerised tomography, which found “amorphous radiodense material suggestive of lead” in four of them.

When the packages secreted inside all 14 were retrieved, intact, the four with the positive results turned out to be smuggling opium. The remainder were smuggling heroin, or methamphetamine.

The CDC report notes that lead poisoning is a significant risk for oral opium users in many countries. Although consumption and absorption rates vary widely, the researchers estimate that users consuming 10 grams of opium a day may ingest as much as 0.03 grams of lead during the same period. The World Health Organisation sets maximum safe lead ingestion at 0.0018 grams per week.

Hassanian-Moghaddam and Zamani say that the reason for the high levels of lead in opium recovered in Iran is unknown. They provide two possible explanations: unintentional additions during the production process or “deliberate adulteration by distributors to make the drug heavier so they can realise more profit”.

Afghanistan, where the drugs originated, accounts for two-thirds of the global opium poppy production. The CDC notes that production declined by 48% in 2015, but adds that the dip will not affect global markets.

The report concludes by advising clinicians around the world to test blood lead levels in any suspected opium-using patients.

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