A powerful drug not meant for human consumption has been found in Waterloo Region, in what people who closely monitor the local drug supply say is a first for Ontario.

Authorities say a drug believed to be responsible for two overdoses in Kitchener and Cambridge last month contained carfentanil – a highly toxic opioid said to be 10,000 times more toxic than morphine.

“It’s actually used to sedate large animals,” says Chris Harold of the region’s public health department.

“It really should not be consumed by an individual.”

While fentanyl has been in the news for most of the year and is potentially lethal itself, authorities say carfentanil is much more dangerous.

Twenty micrograms of carfentanil are enough to kill a person.

“If you think of one grain of salt sitting on your desk, you probably wouldn’t even notice it – but that’s enough carfentanil to kill a human,” says Michael Parkinson of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council.

Police issued an alert about the drug in late November, after the non-fatal overdoses were reported.

At the time, they said that the overdose victims had taken pills that looked like OxyContin, which has been discontinued since 2012, and were imprinted on either side with the letters ‘CDN’ and the number 80.

Although the pills were suspected of being laced with fentanyl, test results showed that it was actually carfentanil – an odourless, tasteless drug that is typically given to elephants and rhinoceroses.

It has been spotted in other provinces recently, but never before in Ontario.

“It’s quite likely the most dangerous substance that Waterloo Region has ever seen,” says Parkinson.

“That’s not to say it isn’t in other communities (and) just hasn’t been detected yet.”

Waterloo Regional Police Chief Bryan Larkin says police have been increasing their efforts to curb the flow of opioids, by doing things like seizing the ‘CDN 80’ pills in Cambridge.

Still, he says, a “much, much larger strategy” is needed because police alone cannot solve the problem.

“It’s troubling that people are preying on those that have an addiction to substance abuse,” he says.

In most cases, Parkinson says, people taking pills laced with fentanyl or carfentanil “simply don’t know what they’re getting” and have no idea taking the drug could prove fatal.

Additionally, because the drugs are being prepared in what Parkinson calls “black market labs,” it’s impossible to predict whether something as potent as carfentanil will end up in every drug of the same batch.

“There is no quality control. One pill can kill someone, and another pill can have no effect,” he says.

Public health agencies have made naloxone available as an antidote to opioid overdoses.

While it works well for fentanyl, Harold says carfentanil’s increased potency has led to problems in the United States.

“There have been some reports … where they’ve needed more or increased doses of naloxone to reverse the effects of the overdose,” he says.

Harold says the best thing anyone who encounters an overdose can do is call 911, then start administering naloxone – then, if five minutes have passed without paramedics showing up or the person reviving, giving another dose of naloxone.

With reporting by Marc Venema