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In its purest form, two to three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. (Courtesy: New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab) In its purest form, two to three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. (Courtesy: New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab)

In its purest form, two to three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. (Courtesy: New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab)

By Catherine Harrington March 6, 2019
By Madison Weaver March 6, 2019

Would one fentanyl seizure be able to kill every West Virginian 32 times over?

When President Donald Trump announced that he would go around Congress to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border by declaring a national emergency, U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., tweeted a video supporting the idea.

In the Feb. 15 video, Miller said, "West Virginia has been hit especially hard by illegal drugs smuggled across our southern border. Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over."

There’s no question that West Virginia has been hit hard by the opioid crisis -- PolitiFact West Virginia has previously reported that the state ranked No. 1 in the nation for opioid overdoses per capita.

But what about the idea that a single federal seizure of fentanyl could have killed every West Virginian 32 times over? We took a closer look.

Miller's office told us that they were referring to late January seizure of 254 pounds of fentanyl by Customs and Border Protection at the Nogales port of entry in Arizona. The drugs -- which were "concealed within a special floor compartment of a trailer that was laden with cucumbers," according to the the agency -- represented the largest fentanyl seizure in the agency’s history.

Miller’s office also walked us through the math they used to arrive at their figure.

The seizure of 254 pounds converts to 115.2 kilograms. In turn, 115.212 kilograms equals 115.212 million milligrams.

Miller’s office said it used 2 milligrams as a lethal dose of fentanyl, citing information from the Drug Enforcement Administration that 2 milligrams is "a lethal dose for most people."

Meanwhile, 115.212 million milligrams works out to 57.606 million lethal doses of 2 milligrams each.

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West Virginia’s population in 2018 was 1,805,832. If you divide 57.606 millon lethal doses by 1,836,843, it means that amount of fentanyl could theoretically kill every West Virginian 31.8 times over. Rounded up, that works out to the 32 times that Miller cited.

To make sure the 2 milligram threshold was sound, we checked with Timothy J. Pifer, the director of the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory, an expert on fentanyl and its lethality.

"Based upon research, toxicology reports and information from other agencies, two to three milligrams of fentanyl in its purest form could be fatal," Pifer said.

However, he added that the technical details make a difference.

For one thing, if you use the 3 milligram threshold instead, the Nogales seizure would be enough to kill every West Virginian about 21 times over, not 32. There would also be a difference in lethality depending on the age, body size, and health of the individual in question.

In addition, Pifer added that "is not clear whether or not the 254 pounds is pure fentanyl or fentanyl that has been already diluted for sale or distribution on the street." The average degree of purity would make a difference in its lethality.

One final point: Miller used the statistic to support the case for constructing a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, the fentanyl was seized at a port of entry. A wall wouldn’t prevent that type of smuggling through established checkpoints.  

Our ruling

Miller said, "Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over."

If you consider 2 milligrams to be a lethal dose -- which the Drug Enforcement Administration does -- then Miller’s estimate is very close to correct. The only caveat is that differences in purity and the health and size of the potential victim can make a difference.

That said, there’s no question that the fentanyl from the seizure, spread evenly and effectively through the population, could have killed every West Virginia resident many times over.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

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"Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over."
a tweet
Friday, February 15, 2019

Our Sources

Carol Miller, tweet, Feb. 15, 2019

Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA Gallery and Images of Drug sizes and Amounts, July 2, 2018.

Census Bureau American Fact Finder, West Virginia Population Estimate, 2018

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, "CBP Officers Seize Largest Amount of Fentanyl in CBP History," Jan. 31, 2019

Joe Manchin, "Does West Virginia have more overdoses than any state?" Nov. 1, 2018

Email interview with Timothy J. Pifer, director of the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory, March 4, 2019

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Would one fentanyl seizure be able to kill every West Virginian 32 times over?

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