CDC: Unintentional Poisoning Deaths Leap

Painkiller Overdoses Causing Huge Numbers of Deaths

From the WebMD Archives

March 25, 2004 -- The poisoning death rate in the U.S. increased 56% in the past decade. The majority of these -- 63% -- were unintentional deaths, with most caused by painkiller overdose, a new CDC study shows.

The national report shows results of a 11-state study -- involving Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin -- from 1990 to 2001.

In all those states -- except Massachusetts and Utah -- there were increases in unintentional poisoning deaths. These unintentional deaths jumped 145% overall -- largely because of the increase in painkiller overdoses, the study shows.

"Among U.S. adults, drug overdoses are the largest cause of poisoning deaths," writes researcher Catherine Sanford, PhD, with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

More than one-half -- 51% -- of poisoning deaths involved OxyContin and other prescription painkillers as well as other illicit drugs: 15% involved cocaine, 8% alcohol, 7% heroin, 5% antidepressants, 5% benzodiazepines, and 5% methadone.

These states had the largest increases in poisoning deaths:

  • Florida: 325%
  • Kentucky: 252%
  • Massachusetts: 228%

Other patterns:

  • Women had twice the increased deaths as men: 203% compared to 126%.
  • Adults aged 65 and under had the highest death rates: 359% in 45 to 54 year olds; 195% in 35 to 44 year olds.
  • Adults aged 65 and over had a 28% decline in poisoning deaths.
  • Death rates began increasing during 1991-1992 in Colorado (125%), Massachusetts (228%), and Washington (108%).
  • Death rates in Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina (80%), and Wisconsin (123%) were stable from 1990 to 1996 - but they increased after 1996.
  • Death rates increased substantially from 1990 to 1996, but declined afterward in these states: Delaware (186%), New Mexico (105%), Oregon (28%), and Utah (183%).

"Unintentional drug overdose deaths are often caused by the misuse of multiple drugs," Sanford writes. Therefore, it is difficult to determine how each drug contributed to the death. Nevertheless, abuse of prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, is a big part of the problem, she adds.