SHANGHAI (AP) -- Seizures of the deadly chemical carfentanil have exploded across the United States, with more than 400 cases documented in eight states since July, The Associated Press has found.
Fueled by a thriving trade out of China, the weapons-grade chemical is suspected in hundreds of drug overdoses in North America. An AP investigation last month showed how easily carfentanil can be purchased online from China. Of the 12 companies that initially offered to export carfentanil, just three have stopped. Nine continue to offer carfentanil for sale, no questions asked, and the AP identified four additional companies willing to sell the drug.
Asked for comment, most denied making the offers.
Jilin Tely Import and Export Co. initially claimed in an email that carfentanil was one of its "hot sales product." After being named in AP's story, the company's website vanished and it denied ever producing carfentanil.
Carfentanil is a controlled substance in the U.S., where it can be used legally to immobilize large animals like elephants. But it is not controlled in China, the top source of fentanyl-related compounds that end up in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"It's a loophole that needs to be closed because even small quantities can have a terrible lethal effect," said Andrew Weber, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs. "Terrorists could acquire it commercially as we have seen drug dealers doing."
Some 5,000 times stronger than heroin, carfentanil is so toxic that an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill a person. It was researched for years as a chemical weapon and used by Russian forces to incapacitate Chechen separatists in 2002.
The AP did not buy carfentanil from the vendors and did not test whether the products on offer were genuine.
DEA and State Department officials have discussed carfentanil's dangers with Chinese authorities, who have already controlled 19 fentanyl-related compounds, and urged them to blacklist it. But China has yet to act. China's Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment.
Dealers cut carfentanil and other synthetic opioids into illicit drugs like heroin to boost profit margins.
Since July, when carfentanil was first identified in the U.S. drug supply, the DEA has confirmed at least 407 carfentanil seizures in eight states, according to data obtained by the AP. Ohio, the hardest-hit state, has 343 confirmed carfentanil seizures.
The resulting wave of human misery has been overwhelming. In just 21 days in July, paramedics in Akron, Ohio, logged 236 overdoses, including 14 fatalities, with suspected links to carfentanil, according to the DEA. In the first six months of this year, in contrast, they dealt with a total of 320 overdoses. In September, the Ohio coroner's office confirmed eight carfentanil overdose deaths in Cincinnati, DEA said.
Direct exports of fentanyl-related chemicals from China arrive in the U.S. as air cargo or postal shipments, but are difficult to identify, according to congressional testimony obtained by the AP.
"Standard field kits do not accurately detect fentanyl," U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said in answers to committee questions. He added that information from Chinese authorities on shipments destined for the U.S. could help customs more effectively intercept illicit packages.
For now, vendors appear brazenly confident about their ability to evade customs.
Shanxi Jinwei Technology Co. offered carfentanil and other drugs for export to the U.S. and Europe. "Please don't worry," the company said in an email. They said they'd hide everything in aluminum bags and reship packages that failed to arrive. The company didn't respond to requests for comment.
Carfentanil vendors also take advantage of loose oversight on major trading platforms like Korea's EC21.com and China's LookChem.com marketplaces. Both screen their listings, but some companies appear to be evading those checks by misspelling the contraband they offer. A search for "fentanyl" yielded zero results on EC21, but "fentanyll" yielded 806 products from 422 suppliers. One company selling through LookChem printed "fentanyl" in red letters across multiple photographs of baggies plump with crystalline powder, without making the drug name searchable.
All this just describes sales on the open internet. The darknet, a collection of shadowy websites invisible to most internet users, is also a vibrant marketplace for drugs.
China's actions can have a profound impact. After Beijing controlled 116 new synthetic drugs last October, U.S. seizures of key narcotics plunged, DEA data show.
The reverberations of that law can still be felt. A sales manager named Eric from Shanghai Golden Time Biological Technology Co. refused to produce fentanyl and acetylfentanyl, both of which are controlled substances in China. "I can't make it," he said.
But he was happy to export the far more potent, unregulated carfentanil for $8,000 a kilogram.