This morning is one of recovery and grief following a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday that left 11 dead and six others wounded. We have updates for you on what we know so far, as well as a dispatch from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the suspect in custody. Take care of yourselves today.

The week ahead

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Behind the story with Aubrey Whelan

A fentanyl user who didn’t want to be identified holds a needle near Kensington and Cambria Streets.
David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
A fentanyl user who didn’t want to be identified holds a needle near Kensington and Cambria Streets.

Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters to learn how they reported their latest story and the challenges they faced along the way. This week, we spoke with reporter Aubrey Whelan to discuss how fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid, has made Philadelphia's battle against the opioid crisis even more difficult. 

What is fentanyl? How is it different from heroin?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid, significantly stronger than heroin, that has legitimate use as a drug to treat intense pain like that in cancer patients. But the fentanyl that's made its way into most of Philly's heroin is a powder largely illicitly produced in China and trafficked into the region from Mexico. At first, it was usually added to low-quality heroin to boost its potency; now, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), it's largely replaced the city's heroin supply. Fentanyl is a particular problem on the East Coast, where the heroin tends to be of the powder variety and is easily combined with fentanyl. The West Coast hasn't really seen the kind of fentanyl explosion we have because the heroin out there is largely black tar, which has a sticky consistency and isn't easily combined with fentanyl.

How has fentanyl impacted the opioid crisis in Philly and across the region?

Fentanyl is now behind most overdose deaths in Philly, and more than half of overdose deaths across the state. It's now very hard to find pure heroin in Philadelphia. There used to be a brand of heroin sold in Kensington that was purported to be some of the last pure heroin in the neighborhood. Then, this summer, that brand ended up getting contaminated with fentanyl and a synthetic cannabinoid and caused a huge overdose spike.

Is there anything that Philadelphia officials are doing to try to reverse the spread of fentanyl in the city's drug supply?

The DEA, Customs and Border Protection, and the Philadelphia police's narcotics unit have made some large-scale drug busts this year including a seizure of more than 100 pounds of fentanyl at the airport a few months ago. And earlier this year, a foreign national trying to move metric tons of the chemicals required to produce fentanyl was arrested in Philly, a DEA spokesman told me. But the city's drug market is resilient. The city has flooded Kensington with the overdose-reversal drug Narcan, and that seems to be helping some. Anecdotally, advocates have told me fewer people are dying of overdoses, but they're reversing more.

Are people in heroin addiction aware of the dangers of fentanyl? What are their attitudes toward it?

Fentanyl isn't something that people in heroin addiction, at least at first, were seeking out: the high doesn't last as long, sending you into withdrawal sooner than heroin would and forcing you to buy more to avoid that intense pain. And withdrawal symptoms, drug users have told me, are worse on fentanyl. But because it's more addictive than heroin, many people have become dependent on it.

Lots of people living on the street in Kensington, understandably, don't want to talk to reporters. There are not many people who like to be interviewed during the lowest points of their lives, and I'm always grateful when someone does speak to me. But I was struck by how many people did want to talk when I started asking them about fentanyl: so many thought it was important to get the message out. They wanted to talk about how it's killing them, and about how much they hate it but they don't feel like there's any other option.

It's a terrifying situation to be in, and drug users do what they can to protect themselves: They can test their drugs for fentanyl, although at this point it's more convenient to assume that fentanyl is in whatever you're using. They can inject drugs more slowly, and stop if they feel something's wrong. They can opt to use with someone else, and make sure they have Narcan on hand. And yet people are still fatally overdosing; the average on a given weekend this summer was 10 deaths.

Contact Aubrey Whelan at awhelan@phillynews.com or on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.

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#CuriousPhilly: Have a question about your community? Ask us!

Have you submitted a question to Curious Philly yet? Try us. We're listening to our readers and doing our best to find answers to the things you're curious about.

Our readers' latest question: I wonder about traffic lights! How is their programming determined? Why are some lights seemingly red forever? Why aren't they timed to get you through many blocks faster? They also seem to break a lot at major intersections. What is the process and timeline for repair?
The answer: Does it feel like you never catch multiple green lights in a row when driving around Philly? It's not your imagination. Reporter Michaelle Bond has found there are many factors at the city and state level that combine to make traffic signals a pain. 

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Comment of the week

I remember going to Spataro's in the late 60's as a student attending Community College of Philadelphia, and watching Dom's father making sandwiches rapid-fire. It's a wonderful place, and I'm glad that the tradition will continue with Alex. RIP Dom. — Guitarman shares a memory of Domenic M. Spataro, a beloved Reading Terminal Market shopkeeper who died earlier this month.
Bob Williams/For the Inquirer
Bob Williams/For the Inquirer
Bob Williams/For the Inquirer

Your Daily Dose of | Innovation

This year, lucky students at 10 Chester County schools will get to hop aboard the Mobile Innovation Lab, a magic school bus of sorts, and conduct state-of-the-art experiments in science, technology, engineering, art and math.