Fact check: Fentanyl present in George Floyd’s system but not enough to cause his death, experts say
The claim: George Floyd had enough fentanyl in his system to kill three grown men
The trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin has seen the defense focus on George Floyd’s history of drug use, with Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson suggesting the handcuffed man’s inability to breathe may have been because of an overdose.
Chauvin is facing murder and manslaughter charges over the death of Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old Black man who died May 25, 2020, when Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes. Floyd’s death sparked protests across the U.S. and worldwide.
Despite expert witnesses rebutting the argument, claims on social media have asserted drugs, not Chauvin’s kneeling, were involved in Floyd’s death.
“George floyd had enough (fentanyl) in his system to kill 3 grown Men or 2 Stacy Abrams,” alleges a graphic shared in an April 10 Facebook post.
USA TODAY has reached out to the poster for further comment.
Setting aside the odd reference to Abrams, a well-known politician and voting rights activist, we should note this is far from the first time a claim like this has surfaced. References to a fatal-seeming level of the synthetic opioid were suggested back in August by conservative media outlets like The Blaze, and recently again by conservative political pundit Ben Shapiro.
But fentanyl isn’t what killed Floyd, and the amount in his system was similar to that found in people who took the drug and were arrested for DUI, but didn’t die. Here’s what we found.
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Fentanyl level not fatal
Blood tests conducted as part of Floyd’s post-mortem autopsy revealed 11 nanograms per milliliter, or ng/ml, of fentanyl present. According to expert witnesses, this wasn’t enough to be considered fatal
Dr. Daniel Isenschmid, a toxicologist at NMS Labs in Pennsylvania, presented data at trial from more than 2,300 blood samples in fentanyl DUI cases from the last year. He showed that while the average fentanyl blood level was close to 9.6 ng/ml, a quarter of people tested had 11 ng/ml or higher. (Important to note: Blood samples were taken from drivers who tested positive for fentanyl and were alive at the time of collection.)
Isenschmid also showed that Floyd’s blood ratio of fentanyl to norfentanyl, the molecule fentanyl is broken down to once in the body, was lower than the average ratio both for people who died of overdoses and those arrested for DUI who lived.
Overdose victims who die rarely have norfentanyl in their blood, since death often occurs before the body can break the drug down, he said.
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Isenschmid’s testimony was supported by pulmonologist and critical care specialist Dr. Martin Tobin of Loyola University Medical Center.
“Mr. Floyd died from a low level of oxygen, and this caused damage to his brain that we see. And it also caused a PEA (pulseless electrical activity) arrhythmia that caused his heart to stop,” he told the court. He explained Floyd’s body position on the street, handcuffs pulling his arms back and a knee on his neck, back and sides, led to his low oxygen levels.
“All of these four forces are ultimately going to result in the low tidal volume, which gives you the shallow breaths” that can’t effectively bring oxygen into the lungs, Tobin said.
He stated because fentanyl typically slows down a person’s breathing, the drug was not a contributing factor based on his calculations of Floyd’s breathing rate based on witness video, which at the time appeared about the same as a healthy individual.
Our ruling: False
We rate the claim Floyd had enough fentanyl in his system to kill three grown men FALSE, based on our research. While Floyd’s toxicology report did reveal fentanyl present, expert witnesses at his murder trial have stated there was not enough to be considered fatal or impact his breathing and oxygen levels. Floyd died due to lack of oxygen from the force of Chauvin’s knee on his neck.
Our fact-check sources:
- USA TODAY, April 5, “George Floyd’s addiction could change how we talk about drug use and Black Americans”
- USA TODAY, June 18, 2020, “Tracking protests across the USA in the wake of George Floyd’s death”
- CNN, June 13, 2020, “Protests across the globe after George Floyd’s death”
- USA TODAY, April 16, “What happens next now that closing arguments are set in the Derek Chauvin trial? We explain how jury deliberations will work.”
- Drugs.com, April 14, “Fentanyl: America’s Most Dangerous Drug?”
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Feb. 16, “Fentanyl”
- Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office, May 26, 2020, “Autopsy Report”
- ABC News, April 8, “Toxicologist testifies on drug levels in George Floyd’s system compared to DUI cases”
- National Institutes of Health National Library of Medicine, accessed April 16, “Norfentanyl”
- NPR, April 8, “Chauvin Trial: Expert Says George Floyd Died from A Lack of Oxygen, Not Fentanyl”
- USA TODAY, April 15, “Expert at Derek Chauvin trial testifies that George Floyd suffocated because officers restrained him facedown and handcuffed”
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