Fentanyl, a potent synthetic narcotic known on the street as "China White," has been linked to six overdose deaths statewide -- five in Baltimore and one in Montgomery County -- since mid-February, according to police and state health officials.
Dr. John E. Smialek, chief state medical examiner, confirmed this week that Fentanyl was definitely responsible for four of the six overdose deaths and preliminary tests linked it to the remaining two victims, both from the city.
Fentanyl is a powerful tranquilizer used in surgery and to sedate wild animals. Police said there have been unconfirmed reports recently about a large number of non-fatal over doses of the substance in East Baltimore. In February 1991, the drug was blamed in the deaths of more than a dozen New York-area users and the hospitalization of more than 100 others.
An alert regarding the drug is being issued to all hospital emergency rooms, local health departments and narcotics treatment centers in Maryland, said Mike Golden, a spokesman for the state health department.
"We were only recently made aware of the problem," Mr. Golden said. "There is not a whole lot we can do. We don't do drug surveillance."
Fentanyl is sought by heroin addicts and usually shows up in large metropolitan areas where heroin abuse is prevalent, said Lt. Col. Thomas H. Carr, head of the state police Bureau of Drug Enforcement.
"It has the same type of physical response as heroin, only it is about 100 percent more potent," Colonel Carr said. "The chances of overdosing on it are much greater. It affects the nervous system. Too much of it will prevent the muscles from working, and you stop breathing."
Three of the deaths reported in Baltimore occurred between Feb. 16 and Feb. 19 in a six-square-block area of East Baltimore known for drug trafficking. Police said the victims, a woman and two men, knew one another and may have purchased drugs from the same dealer.
Capt. Mike Andrew, head of the city police drug enforcement section, said the recent popularity of China White in Baltimore is unusual because "heroin is prevalent now and . . . usually you don't see synthetic drugs unless heroin is in poor supply."
Richard H. Lane, director of the methadone maintenance program Man Alive, said one of the dangers of using street narcotics is that "hardly ever do you know what's in the bag." In some cases, heroin dealers may be selling Fentanyl without telling their customers. But he said it is not unusual for addicts to ignore warnings about Fentanyl and other potent opiates and actually hunt for them after learning they are available.
"If someone is selling drugs that people are dying from, that's where they [addicts] go hunting," said Mr. Lane. "They think they can be more careful and not use as much."
Officer Edward C. Bochniak of the Eastern District Drug Enforcement Unit described China White as "nasty stuff."
"It's really devastating to the human body," he said. "Even if you survive [an overdose] it could leave you suffering from the same symptoms as Parkinson's disease."