MICHAEL R. SCHMIDT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Will County Health Department's Joeseph Troiani (right) and Coroner Patrick O'Neil talk about the Heroin problem that Will County and the city of Joliet are facing.
Fatal heroin overdoses
in Will County:
2012: 9 (Jan. to April)
Drug overdoses were the leading cause of unnatural deaths in Will County last year.
Coroner Patrick K. O’Neil said almost half (30 of 62) of those overdoses were from heroin.
If cocaine and prescription medications were listed in their own categories, only traffic accidents would still rank ahead of heroin.
“It’s an epidemic,” O’Neil said.
O’Neil has been coroner for 20 years and said a year with more than one heroin death was unusual until about a decade ago.
But six people overdosed in 1999, five people in their 40s, and a 19-year-old girl.
“I started talking with law enforcement to see it was making a comeback,” O’Neil said. “Years ago when there was a heroin overdose you could pick a particular street that would likely be where the victim was. Now it is found throughout the county.”
As the median age of a heroin victim has dropped, the number of fatal overdoses has risen. Five deaths in 2000. Fifteen in 2005. Twenty-six in 2010.
The first three months of 2012 have seen nine confirmed heroin deaths, and pending toxicology tests could increase that to 12, O’Neil said.
Fatal overdoses now seem to split evenly between users who inject heroin and those who snort or smoke it.
“The purity levels have increased that users don’t have to cook it into a liquid anymore. We’re not always seeing track marks in cases where someone has died from heroin,” O’Neil said.
While someone could be with other people when they overdose, deputy coroners have found most people are alone when they take that fatal hit.
Deputies ask family members if the person had a history of drug use. They’ll search through garbage cans looking for baggies or needles and hard surfaces like credit cards and tabletops near where a body is found.
“As with any death investigation, every family is devastated. Sometimes there is a drug history, but other times the relatives are completely blindsided when we get the toxicology results back four or five weeks later and find it’s a heroin overdose,” O’Neil said.
Almost every coroner who responded to a questionnaire O’Neil sent to every county in the state reported an increase. Heroin has become a major topic of the regular meetings between the coroner and local police departments.
O’Neil believes constant reminders of the danger of starting to use heroin are the best way his office can help fight the problem on a local and international level.
A 2004 United Nations-sponsored study determined nearly 90 percent of the opium used to make heroin is produced in Afghanistan.
“This is a public health issue, and the symposiums we’re attending show it’s the result of terrorism,” O’Neil said. “They don’t have to fly planes into buildings. More people are dying this way.”