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Deaths due to veterinary tranquilizer xylazine on the rise in Chicago

Deaths due to veterinary tranquilizer xylazine on the rise in Chicago
Deaths due to veterinary tranquilizer xylazine on the rise in Chicago 02:51

CHICAGO (CBS) – The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning nationwide for the drug known as xylazine.

CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey found out it's been showing up in autopsies in Cook County for years.

Unfortunately, Chicago is one of the hot spots across the country. CBS 2 reviewed the latest numbers from the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office and they show xylazine-related deaths are on the rise.

"On July 26 of 2016, my son snorted a line of cocaine which his best friend had spiked with fentanyl, which killed him," said Kathy Zander. "And John was buried on what should have been his 23rd birthday."

Zander, a Carol Stream native, can tell you from her painful, first-hand experience that fentanyl was dangerous to begin with.

"It's a death sentence," she said.

It was mixed with a drug called xylazine, also known as a "tranq."

"It's just Russian roulette," Zander said.

You'll find it for sale on "vet supply" websites because:

"Xylazine is a veterinary tranquilizer," said Dr. Kim Sue, of the Yale University School of Medicine. "It's not approved for use in humans."

Sue said she's seen and treated the impacts of xylazine and fentanyl for a few years now. She explained why it's so dangerous.

"We don't have any known antidote to xylazine," Sue said. "Xylazine is not an opioid, so it does not necessarily respond to naloxone, which is, as you know, our miracle medication that saves people from a near-fatal death if we get them in time, and are able to give them the medication to reverse an opioid overdose."

The consequences are being seen right here in Cook County. Last year, the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office recorded 158 opioid-related deaths where xylazine was listed as the primary cause of death. That's up from 110 cases in 2021, and 30 cases in 2020.

For users who survive, it can also cause human skin to rot.

"We know that they also can cause some really bad skin wounds that I've been taking care of for the past couple of years," Sue said.

Even though it's naloxone-resistant, Sue still encourages people to administer the drug if someone experiences an overdose.

"But if they're not responding after that, really you need to turn to providing them rescue breathing and supporting them with oxygen," she said.

Meanwhile, it's only strengthening Zander's mission to educate the public about the dangers of fentanyl, with or without it being mixed with other drugs.

"The destruction that it does to the families afterwards, it's just devastating," Zander said. "It's devastating."

The DEA said nearly a quarter of fentanyl powder tested by their labs in 2022 had xylazine mixed into it. Cook County Medical Examiner records show that so far in 2023, there have been at least seven xylazine-related deaths.

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