The Opioid Epidemic Is Turning Commercial Buildings Into Deadly Hazmat Zones, And No One Knows What To Do About It
Imagine this: a custodial crew walks into a hotel room or an office bathroom to find the victim of a drug overdose dead on the floor.
Hours later, a custodian passes out, and someone who used that hotel room or office bathroom is experiencing breathing problems. If they don't get medical attention soon, they might die, too.
That scene is playing out more frequently, in places from New England to Canada to California — a threat few, if any, are prepared to face.
It might seem easy to turn a blind eye to the opioid epidemic, but North American commercial real estate is having to face the latest deadly phase of this public health crisis: fentanyl. Unlike heroin and other opioids, when fentanyl is used a certain way, the drug can linger in the air and make any area a potential death trap for innocent bystanders.
“In the last 10 days, we’ve done fentanyl overdoses at public bathrooms at the supermarket, restaurants, hotels, tire changing places — even one at a library,” 24 Trauma CEO Michael Wiseman said. “Fentanyl definitely doesn’t discriminate. It’s only a matter of time before it goes even further.”
Hazmat-suit-laden cleanup crews are often summoned to douse contaminated areas with a special chemical to neutralize the effects of illicit activities — a grim, increasingly common occurrence across commercial properties in New England.
Bisnow has followed companies and business organizations over the last four months as they tackle the fatal ramifications of a narcotic once used to treat pain that has been retooled into one of North America’s deadliest illicit drugs. Bisnow interviewed more than two dozen law enforcement personnel, researchers, business owners and government officials and arrived at one conclusion: When it comes to fentanyl, everyone is at a loss on how to proceed with finding a solution.
“Is there an epidemic? Absolutely,” Calgary, Canada-based MayKen Hazmat Solutions Chief of Operations Dean May said. “The problem is the industry is not prepared for it, and to deal with it adequately requires the right people with the right frame of mind and training.”
24 Trauma and MayKen Hazmat Solutions are the kind of companies an owner never wants to see around its property. In Massachusetts, the opioid epidemic makes their services as much of a necessity for commercial building owners as a good property manager. 24 Trauma has contracts for nearly 80M SF of commercial property within Greater Boston’s Interstate 495 belt and is increasingly fielding calls from other parts of the country.
May’s company has grown alongside the rise of fentanyl-related deaths in Western Canada. Fentanyl was found in 80% of illicit drug overdose deaths in the province of British Columbia in the first seven months of 2017, according to the region’s coroner service. Because there is no regulation — in Canada or the U.S. — on how to properly restore a property contaminated with fentanyl, MayKen Hazmat is working with Alberta Health Services to create its own procedure on how to clean up the deadly drug from properties throughout the region.
“It’s definitely not getting better,” May said. “The biggest issue is there’s no legislation for it, no occupational health and safety limits and no guidelines. Everyone is still working to try and develop those.”
There was a 58% increase in fentanyl-related deaths in Alberta from 2016 to 2017 — and a 143% jump in British Columbia over the same time frame — and they can happen anywhere. While MayKen has been called to expected scenes like drug production labs in residential properties, it has also been called to restaurants, supermarkets and even a downtown Alberta office building.
More than 2,000 people died from opioids in Massachusetts in 2017. The epidemic has continued into 2018, with the added threat of fentanyl now being mixed into cocaine.
The Lowell, Massachusetts, fire chief issued a warning in March for residents to be alert for overdoses after four people fatally overdosed in a span of 12 hours from what he believed was a mix of heroin-fentanyl and cocaine-fentanyl. The number of cocaine-fentanyl deaths in Connecticut rose 420% since 2015, according to the state's chief medical examiner.
“We did [a fentanyl cleanup] a few days ago at a nice residential building where a portfolio manager in the city was doing a few lines before he went to work,” Wiseman said. “But he overdosed because [the cocaine] was mixed with fentanyl.”
The U.S. and Canadian governments’ response has been muted, and Massachusetts is the only state in the U.S. pursuing legislation to regulate fentanyl cleanup.
Bisnow reached out to health officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and was either deferred to other organizations or told plans for official procedure were in early stages — and not necessarily intended for commercial property owners.
“The [National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health] Hazard Evaluation Program is working with partners, including police departments and healthcare groups, to understand how workers may be exposed and what resources they need to work safely,” NIOSH Health Communication Specialist Stephanie Stevens wrote in an email. “We currently do not have evidence-based guidance for occupations other than law enforcement and healthcare.”
But cleanup is only one part of the opioid epidemic’s multipronged attack on commercial real estate.
A Tale Of Two Bostons
One of the biggest building booms in Boston history continues to send land prices to record highs and has compressed much of the city’s industrial activity to Newmarket, a neighborhood one stop away from Boston’s busiest rail hub, South Station.
The success of developers elsewhere in the city is impossible for Newmarket landowners to ignore. Land in the neighborhood is averaging around $90/SF, including National Development’s and Charles River Realty Investors’ $11.7M acquisition in September of a 3-acre site in the Newmarket Square Development District.
Newmarket Business Association Executive Director Sue Sullivan said her organization is working to find ways to combine industrial with other uses to emulate the evolution of industrial neighborhoods like New York City’s Meatpacking District, but Sullivan can’t ignore one issue that plagues her neighborhood daily: opioids.
The narcotic has flooded Boston, particularly into an area of Newmarket known as “Methadone Mile.”
Thanks to a consolidation of drug treatment centers and homeless shelters from other neighborhoods in the last few decades, Newmarket is now home to a bulk of the region’s methadone clinics and drug treatment centers and is attracting people from out of state.
With the recent explosion of the opioid epidemic, Sullivan said drug dealers have descended on the area, preying on those seeking treatment and turning her neighborhood into the hotbed of Greater Boston’s illicit drug activity.
Her team observes 150 people each day shooting up and reports as many as 200 discarded needles for the city to pick up on a daily basis.
“Anytime you have this many people who are vulnerable trying to be in recovery in one place, it’s a haven for drug dealers,” she said. “Even the methadone clinics are complaining, saying they want to be elsewhere. It’s like having an alcoholic walk through a bar to get to AA meetings.”
Despite the daily confrontation with addiction, developers and industrial tenants aren’t turned off from Newmarket. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh included the neighborhood in a round of planning initiatives announced in June intended to boost transit-oriented development.
Sullivan said there is a list of investors waiting to buy in the neighborhood, but the biggest issue is the perceived safety threat to the 20,000 workers in the neighborhood who are harassed getting to their jobs. Her organization is searching far and wide for a solution, but everyone appears to be equally at a loss when it comes to tackling opioids.
“How come we’re not getting through to the people who make decisions? It’s not just here,” Sullivan said. “Look at San Francisco. I have my interns looking at every major city, and nobody knows how to deal with this.”
Sullivan invited Bisnow on a recent Wednesday for a tour of Newmarket to show the dichotomy of how business owners in the area are coming face-to-face with one of the country’s most dire public health crises. Over the span of a five-hour visit, well over 50 people were seen passed out in a 10-block radius.
Dealers on bicycles were selling drugs in the open, and users weren’t even attempting to shield how they were standing on loading docks openly shooting syringes into their necks.
Crowds in several locations grew quickly when dealers would arrive, just blocks away from police tending to other groups. Sidewalks, highway medians, loading docks, parking lots and private properties were strewn with passed-out individuals who appeared to be under the influence of opioids.
“The problem is you ask for police, and there’s just not enough law enforcement,” one business owner said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of city retribution against critics of their neighborhood policy. “I’ve had pictures of police cruisers and 30 people doing drugs right behind it. I’ve also had incidents where the city will come down [on us] because we spoke up. Everyone is too afraid to speak up because you’re going against the city and afraid of retaliation.”
The situation is bleak for the neighborhood’s business community. Having already been pushed out of other areas that attracted developers looking for higher revenue-generating projects, Newmarket business owners feel misled by leaders who promised they wouldn’t notice any change from the arrival of the methadone clinics and drug treatment facilities.
Some clinics were pitched as temporary, but with no signs of the drug services moving out and industrial availability in the urban core on the decline, business owners, like the people suffering from addiction outside their front door, feel there’s nowhere else for them to go.
“It’s not that we’re NIMBY,” Sullivan said. “It’s just that we don’t want all of it in our backyard.”
Forging A Path Forward
There is no clear-cut solution to the fentanyl problem. Secondhand exposure to fentanyl can cause respiratory problems, clogged blood vessels, a weakened immune system — even death.
“This evolution of fentanyl that’s been going on the last handful of years has brought up the issue of hazards around scenes and vehicles beyond what it ever had been before,” Norwood, Massachusetts, Chief of Police William Brooks said. “Fentanyl is a pharmaceutical that had been used effectively in the past. What’s been happening is not that. It’s being produced in illicit labs overseas and being shipped here and finding its way in the drug scene.”
Two sheriff’s investigators in California’s Alameda County suffered from accidental exposure to a dust cloud of suspected fentanyl in a hotel room in June. One grew faint, had to be pulled from the hotel room and eventually fell unconscious and into respiratory distress, according to a statement by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. His partner administered two doses of Narcan, a drug that counters the effects of opioids, and he eventually regained consciousness.
Although California’s overall opioid overdoses fell in 2017, its 373 fentanyl overdoses were the highest in state history, according to the California Department of Public Health. In the Boston suburb of Chelsea, three police officers were affected last summer after they were exposed to fentanyl on a call.
“The opioids cut with fentanyl coming around now are so strong that there are concerns it can get into your bloodstream more than any other street drug we’ve ever encountered,” Brooks said.
One Massachusetts politician wants to mandate professional fentanyl cleanup is included at some commercial properties in his state.
A state Senate bill filed in February by Sen. Richard Ross would require a professional cleanup to be administered by companies like MayKen or 24 Trauma following fentanyl-related incidents at hotels, multifamily properties and in rental cars.
The measure, supported by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, is working its way through the Massachusetts General Court and could make the state the first in the U.S. to legally require a professional crew to clean areas believed to be exposed to fentanyl.
Through a spokesperson, Ross declined to comment on his legislation but did issue a written statement to Bisnow.
“With fentanyl becoming increasingly popular, I find it necessary to try and prevent unintentional contact with the drug that can unfortunately have lethal repercussions,” he wrote.
While there is no national legislation regarding fentanyl cleanup at commercial properties, the White House issued a guideline last year for safety procedures first responders should take at scenes potentially contaminated with fentanyl.
Alberta Health Services has a request for information for professional third parties, and it is trying to develop a plan to properly clean properties once they are contaminated with fentanyl. While the city figures out an official plan, May said his company works closely with city government and health inspectors to share information from jobs to get a better understanding of what to do to tackle the problem.
The experience in Newmarket is no different, albeit more complex. Business owners stay in close contact with the city to find a solution, but they aren’t necessarily pleased with the results from City Hall. Pleas for more law enforcement have been met with recommendations to put up “No Trespassing” signs and motion-detecting spotlights around the property.
“What’s a spotlight going to do? Let them see their veins better at night?” one business owner asked.
Several Newmarket business owners told Bisnow they felt pressured not to complain too much out of fear of looking unsympathetic to those suffering from addiction. The Massachusetts governor’s Opioid Working Group recommends against arrest and incarceration for those suffering from addiction, but Sullivan said the continuous flow of drugs into Newmarket is turning off workers in the neighborhood due to safety concerns.
“We talk about not arresting our way out of this problem, and I agree with that, but at some point, when people are shooting up in public, and the problem is getting larger and larger, you need to look at it in a humane way,” she said. “It’s not humane to have people sitting on sidewalks falling over, shooting up in public. You need to give them an option: either you go to jail or you go to treatment.”
Newmarket businesses also hope a program to make Massachusetts a pilot state to dispense methadone while supervised in pharmacies instead of exclusively at methadone clinics would divert the daily illicit drug activity in the area. There are 39 communities with methadone clinics in the state, but there are over 300 with pharmacies identified by the commission as being capable to offer methadone.
The Newmarket Business Association also supports opening “soup-to-nuts” treatment facilities across Massachusetts that would offer a months-long program of detox, rehabilitation and workforce development.
One such facility is being pursued by Walsh’s administration on Long Island in Boston Harbor, but Sullivan said more are needed to offer the fundamental changes to truly solve the opioid crisis in neighborhoods across the country — not just her own. Unless the problem is addressed with the resources it needs, cosmetic changes just push it a few blocks over.
“I think developers who are speculative think the problem will begin to go away if you change the look of the area,” Sullivan said. “But it doesn’t go away. It just moves, and you have to wonder: Where will it move to?”