Toxicology backlog delaying drug overdose test results

P.E.I.'s medical lab technologists concerned about workload

British Columbia's opioid crisis is putting pressure on the scientists who investigate potential overdose deaths, according to the medical director of the province's toxicology centre.

Dr. Wes Schreiber, the medical director for the provincial toxicology centre, said the volume of testing increased 30 per cent in 2016, as illicit drug deaths in B.C. increased 78 per cent. 

Tests taking longer

"The volume of testing went up so much that we've gotten behind a bit on some of the work. So, it's taking longer for things to come through," Schreiber told On the Island host Gregor Craigie.

Even with the backlog, Schreiber said, expedited testing for suspected overdose deaths is usually done within two to three days. 

However, relatives of Jeffrey Canuel, whose body was found near a park bench in Vancouver last week, said the B.C. Coroner's Service informed them that toxicology tests to determine why he died might not be available for months.

Canuel, 26, was found at the corner of Cambie Street and Second Avenue after a night out with friends March 5.

Schreiber said establishing cause of death is important for public health reasons, such as tracking an epidemic but also for very personal ones. 

"Everybody who dies is, or was, part of a family, and family members and friends want to know, why did my friend or why did my family member die?" he said.

As his lab works to clear the backlog, the spread of stronger fentanyl-like opioids poses an added challenge for toxicologists.

"We are probably encountering drugs that we don't usually detect with our current instruments," he said. For now, equipment needs to be recalibrated to detect new substances that enter the illicit drug market.

The toxicology lab expects delivery of a new instrument in about a month that will allow faster identification of drugs such as carfentanil which is described as 100 times more powerful than fentanyl.

"We should be able to measure these compounds and get really a fuller picture of what drugs people are being exposed to," he said.

More staff and instruments needed

 To reduce the backlog, the toxicology service has also rehired a retired technologist and asked the B.C. government  for additional staffing and instruments.

Schreiber said he's seen previous waves of overdose deaths in B.C. when a new or more concentrated drug enters the market.

"It passes through and then you get back to more of a baseline state," he said.

But the current fentanyl crisis is different, in part because the highly concentrated opioid is mixed in with other drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine or is being sold as those drugs.

"People are taking massive overdoses of fentanyl when they think they're actually taking a different drug," he said. 

With files from CBC Radio On the Island