Leading cause of death for Americans under 50 is drug overdose

The new leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50: drug overdose.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made this announcement at a joint news conference with Drug Enforcement Agency officials.

“We are not talking about a slight increase. There is a horrifying surge in drug overdoses in the United States of America,” he said.

In 2015, 52,000 died from drug overdoses, according to the U.S. Justice Department. In 2016, those numbers rose to 60,000.

More than half of those deaths, involved the use of heroin, fentanyl and other opioid drugs.

Fentanyl is a synthetic pain medication. It is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and has been used increasingly as a recreational drug.

Exposure to the drug presents both a risk to users and first responders.

“Fentanyl is especially dangerous. Fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more deadly than heroin. Just 2 milligrams—the equivalent of a few grains of table salt—an amount that can fit on the tip of your finger—can be lethal,” said Rosenstein.

“Fentanyl exposure can injure or kill innocent law enforcement officers and other first responders. Inhaling just a few airborne particles can have dramatic effects. Our police officers and first responders face this danger every day,” he said.

On Tuesday, the DEA released new guides designed to help first responders and law enforcement limit their exposure to the drug.