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Fentanyl test strips offer ‘false sense of security,’ Health Canada warns

WATCH: Health Canada warning about false security in fentanyl test strips

Fentanyl test strips are not as effective at preventing overdoses as many people assume, Health Canada has warned.

In a release, the public health agency explained that the strips have several limitations when it comes to detecting fentanyl or other potentially fatal drugs.

READ MORE: Fentanyl health effects — what happens during and after an overdose

“No fentanyl test strips are specifically designed to check street drugs before consumption,” the release read.

Dr. Hance Clarke, a clinical researcher at Toronto General Hospital, told Global News that not all strips work the same way.

Some strips are meant to detect fentanyl in urine samples after drug consumption has already taken place.

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Other strips work differently and are used to test drugs themselves, but are used by law enforcement, and not necessarily designed for street drug testing.

READ MORE: What’s in your drugs? Safe injection site offers users a way to test for unexpected fentanyl

The strips then display a plus or minus, or change colour to indicate whether the opioid is present.

“The urine strip tests aren’t going to help you. That just tells you what you’ve consumed after the fact,” Clarke explained.

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Another limitation of the strips is that they don’t always detect synthetic forms of fentanyl that may be present, such as carfentanil.

WATCH: Mom pours grief into a book to prevent any other family from enduring the pain of losing a child to a fentanyl overdose

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Clarke says the strips often only offer a “false sense of security,” and it’s hard to know when the results are correct.

This isn’t the first time Health Canada has warned against relying on the strips. In December 2017, a similar warning was issued following a preliminary study that found fentanyl strips may not be accurate.

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“A false negative could lead to a false sense of security, which may result in overdose or death,” the warning read. “This is particularly true for people who may choose to use drugs alone or without visiting a supervised consumption site where emergency help is immediately available.”

READ MORE: Fentanyl test strips won’t be widely available any time soon, minister says

Strips growing in popularity

Fentanyl strips are growing in popularity as a means of testing drugs easily and at a low cost, according to research published in the Harm Reduction Journal in February.

In the study, young adults who admitted to using drugs were asked about their willingness to use the strips — after some training nearly all of them said they would use the strips and felt confident in how to administer them.

The strips are also available online and can be bought for just a few dollars.

READ MORE: Accuracy of fentanyl test strips under scrutiny by Health Canada

Alternatives to fentanyl testing strips

Clarke suggests those using fentanyl or illicit drugs take a range of precautions.

For starters, those consuming the drugs should never do so alone — a supervised consumption site is best, if available.

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“If you’re unsure about the product, you’ve got to consume it not by yourself,” he said. “Obviously don’t take a lot of it.”

WATCH: Drug policies are failing to protect Canadians in the fentanyl and opioid era, expert says

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Naloxone, an antidote that can temporarily reverse the effects of fentanyl, should also be carried.

Clarke describes naloxone as a fentanyl “antagonist,” which often comes in the form of a nasal spray or injection, and can help restore breathing in case of an overdose.

— With a file from The Canadian Press

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