Metro bus driver and local mayor describe increasing concern for riders from fentanyl fumes

KING COUNTY, Wash. — Few people understand the subtle patterns and rhythms in the daily hustle and crisscross of Metro’s vast network of buses more than veteran driver Erik Christensen, who says he has loved his job for 22 years.

“No one’s getting rich off my efforts,” he said, adding, “I like joking with people, and I actually like the physics of driving.”

Recently, Christensen has been deeply frustrated by Metro’s response to a problem he calls an urgent matter of health and safety for his thousands of daily riders. “I’m one voice,” he said. “One voice that’s getting ignored.”

Christensen said he and other drivers have reached out to Metro management and even the county executive for months, hoping they’d respond to mounting complaints about a hazardous environment from rampant smoking of opioids — like fentanyl — on buses.

“This is personal now. This is about the people, the passengers,” he said.

Within the last year, countless Metro bus drivers like Erik started reporting disturbing sights mixed with very strong smells onboard their coaches. “The signs are, they put their head down, and start watching for the flame,” he said.

The warm still air inside buses and trains has made them a preferred and trendy location for many users to burn blue pills known as “blues” M-30s or “30s” — which are commonly laced with fentanyl — on aluminum foil with a lighter beneath it. They inhale the rising smoke and fumes with a straw.

“After they inhale or ingest, they can comfortably pass out,” Christensen said. “And no one’s going to stop them.”

Christensen and other drivers told KIRO 7 that Metro Transit police do not commonly intervene when the drugs are being used on board, with the common understanding that possession of small amounts of illicit drugs is not enforced or prosecuted in Washington State, following the Blake Supreme Court decision.

The DEA says the fentanyl pills being smoked are made in China to appear like prescription painkillers. The CDC says fentanyl is not only the leading killer for Americans ages 18-to 45, but predicts that 100,000 Americans will die from using it this year. The King County Medical Examiner reports that the recent majority of deadly overdose cases are caused by users smoking fentanyl.

“The only thing that’s going to stop them is to interrupt, have something that’s stronger than their desire to get high,” Christensen said “Once they’ve fired up, it is too late.”

Several metro drivers told KIRO 7 they’ve been overcome by fentanyl fumes. Some reported dizziness, headaches and impairment, and had to be taken off from their bus route to the emergency room.

Federal Way responded to KIRO 7′s investigation with a new ordinance.

Jim Ferrell, the mayor of Federal Way, and a former King County prosecuting attorney who’s now running to become King County’s next prosecutor, drafted a groundbreaking ordinance specifically banning smoking fentanyl or other opioids on public buses, trains and other confined public spaces in Federal Way. Ferrell told KIRO 7 the ordinance was a direct response to the investigation aired in February. It’s the only ordinance of its kind anywhere in the state, and it passed the City Council on Tuesday, May 3, unanimously.

“We need to make sure that people that come and go from Federal Way and drivers that come and go are safe,” he said. “When we get a 911 call either from a rider or a driver, or anyone that’s aware of this dangerous and reckless behavior, our police can come in and intervene and make sure that we can remove that person from a bus.”

That is something law enforcement in other parts of the county has been criticized for not making a priority. The new ordinance makes the “reckless use of fentanyl in enclosed public spaces” a gross misdemeanor, which is now punishable by up to 364 days in jail, a $5,000 fine or both.

Ferrell and the Council also discussed offering treatment options to people who are contacted or arrested by officers.

Recently, Metro’s CEO made a public statement claiming that fentanyl smoke was not as hazardous as drivers and riders feared. He made the statements during Metro’s “Share & Care: Substance Use Disorder” Zoom meeting in March.

“We understand employees have concerns about secondhand smoke from illegal and legal substance on our public transit system,” White said. “County Public Health has provided data from studies conducted by the FDA that concluded that secondhand smoke exposure does not show up as a positive drug screening and will not get you high,” he said, adding “In addition, KN-95 masks that we’ve come to know as helping to reduce the spread of COVID also filter chemical and other biological particles that are transmitted by air. We continue to provide these masks at all worksites to our employees.”

Metro declined an on-camera interview with KIRO 7, but when we asked for the data and the studies that White had cited, they sent us several sources.

Some were studies about fentanyl exhaled by surgical patients. Others discussed the risk of first-responders to people suffering overdose symptoms from using fentanyl. KIRO 7 asked several medical experts familiar with illicit drug abuse to review the material. None of the studies specifically described the effect of fentanyl or other opioid fumes on people in an enclosed space.

Dr. Scott Phillips from Washington Poison Center was also quoted in a Public Health/Seattle/King County blog post on April 5, discounting the potential harm of secondary fentanyl smoke.

Since the trend of smoking fentanyl seems to have happened within the last year, some of the experts contacted by KIRO 7 suggested that formal studies on the fumes generated by burning the blue pills commonly available on the streets of Seattle have not likely happened yet.

“I’ve seen otherwise in my career. I don’t believe that to be correct,” said Shoreline Paramedic Captain Gabe DeBay, when he reviewed the conclusions Metro had reached, and read the studies it cited.

“I’ve been in the line of work for 20 years. I teach this to firefighters, EMTs, paramedics. I see people dropping every single day — from fumes that they ingested. But those are the same fumes that are burning on buses, burning in public spaces and can go into the people sitting next to them.”

When asked if he believed incidental exposure to secondary fentanyl smoke should be regarded as dangerous, DeBay responded: “Extremely dangerous. It’s the smoke from the pill that has not been inhaled.”

Driver Erik Christensen said he has written to Metro executives, requesting to lend his frontline input to their Safety Committee to consider new strategies to prevent secondhand exposure.

“I’m not asking for much,” he said. “I’m asking to be involved with something that’s affecting my health, my mental well-being and the health and well-being of my passengers. And I’m being told no.”

Christensen likened the daily risk to other common workplaces.

“Imagine if you went to work one morning and there sitting on your desk was a person smoking fentanyl. And your boss comes up and says ‘Don’t worry about it, let ‘em do that.’ And it makes you cough and choke. You’d want something done,” he said.

“This all belongs to everybody who’s a taxpayer, a voter, a rider of the system,” he said. “They are the ones who ultimately are in control and in charge.”