CHICAGO (WLS) -- Young people are one of the most at-risk populations for drug overdoses. Authorities say criminal cartels are targeting teens by mass producing fake pills laced with fentanyl.
Small amounts of fentanyl can be deadly, and many people are unaware it's in the street drugs they are using. A campaign to end overdoses by distributing fentanyl testing strips is targeting universities and other places with large populations of young people. The goal is to save lives.
"He was sober for a year, and things were going well. And at that point in time, he received a fatal dose of fentanyl," said Mark Raber.
His son Dennis was 29 when he died in 2018. He said Dennis took what he thought was cocaine.
"There was about 100%, fentanyl. So, we were shocked," said Raber.
Agents at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warn cartels are also hiding fentanyl in other drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine and fake prescription pills, including rainbow colored ones.
"When you add fentanyl to that, you know, it's Russian roulette. It's becoming more common that somebody knows somebody that has overdosed or lost their life due to these deaths of despair," said Jim O'Connor, Executive Director of the Pathway to Sobriety Program at The Center in Palos Park.
"There seems to be more opioid dependency and overdoses. And distressingly, it's younger and younger people," Dr. Stephen Spontak, Emergency Physician at Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital said.
An I-Team data analysis of federal public health statistics reveals fentanyl-related overdoses are the number one cause of death for Americans ages 18-45. That's what End Overdose is trying to stop.
"I think we can all agree that people dying from something preventable is pretty unnecessary," said Theo Krzywicki, Founder and CEO of End Overdose.
The organization's stated mission is to end drug-related overdose deaths through education, medical intervention, and public awareness. They provide training on how to administer Narcan to reverse an opioid overdose, and how to use fentanyl testing strips to prevent taking laced drugs.
They have distributed tens of thousands of test strips and Narcan kits throughout the country, many going to university campuses.
"It's so important that harm reduction is there, and is there to make sure people are safe," said Jackie Pawlowski, Illinois Branch Manager at End Overdose. "We want people to be comfortable in what they're doing, and always have the resources available to them if something goes wrong."
Pawlowski lost a friend to an overdose. She has trained dozens of people who work at concert venues in Chicago, and is trying to make tests and Narcan easily accessible on college campuses here.
"I think it's fantastic. You know, obviously, you can't prevent all drug use, even with all the programs and things. So, safety is really important," said DePaul University student Jack Baust.
"I think that's a pretty important step towards the future," said Christian Howard, DePaul University student. "It's one thing to be addicted to drugs, it's another thing to lose your life. You want people to have a chance to get better instead of dying."
First responders told the I-Team three out of five overdose deaths could have been prevented if there was someone present who knew how, and when, to intervene.
Dennis Raber's family hosts a race every year to raise awareness, and support local recovery programs.
"If you pretend it doesn't exist, you're really just fooling yourself," said Mark Raber.
Synthetic opioids like fentanyl were detected in more than two thirds of all deadly drug overdoses in the U.S. last year, according to U.S. public health investigators. The DEA said it has taken 10 million fentanyl pills off the streets since May, along with half a ton of fentanyl powder.