Image: Tim Zigler
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Tim Zigler, 17, of Spokane, Wash., died in 2006 after a methadone overdose. New federal statistics show that methadone fatalities jumped sevenfold between 1999 and 2006.
By contributor
updated 10/1/2009 8:57:39 AM ET 2009-10-01T12:57:39

Tim Zigler, 17, came home one evening three years ago and quickly went to bed. The next morning, his father found him unconscious and barely breathing. He died before an ambulance arrived.

The Spokane, Wash., teenager had taken methadone that previous night, presumably at a fellow student’s home, before coming home, said his father, Ken Zigler.

“Tim didn’t have any tolerance for methadone,’’ said Zigler, who called the drug “horribly dangerous.’’

The potential danger was underscored in a new federal report that said the number of deaths involving methadone jumped nearly sevenfold from 1999 to 2006.

The rise in methadone-related fatalities was faster than increases in deaths from other opioid analgesics — drugs usually prescribed to relieve pain such as OxyContin and fentanyl — and from other narcotics.

Overall, poisoning deaths involving all opioid analgesics more than tripled over the seven-year time frame, increasing among all age groups, said the report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Methadone is widely known for treatment of heroin addiction, but it has been increasingly prescribed to manage pain.

The CDC statistics buttressed a March report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which said methadone’s growing use for pain management has made more of the drug available, thus contributing to an increase in methadone-related overdose deaths.

Sharp rise in methadone prescriptions
Methadone prescriptions for pain management jumped from about 531,000 in 1998 to more than 4 million in 2006, the GAO found. Deaths related to the drug can occur from improper dosing levels, misuse by patients who may combine it with other drugs, or abuse of the drug for non-medical purposes, the agency said.

The CDC report said “a lack of knowledge about the unique properties of methadone was identified as contributing to some deaths.’’

“We’ve been watching the trend in methadone deaths,’’ said Margaret Warner, an epidemiologist with the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics and a co-author of the report. ”Methadone has a long half-life. It stays in your body.’’

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The methadone poisonings have continued in the last two years, Warner said. “There have been some programs to address the problem. We’re hoping they decrease the deaths.’’

Methadone is effective in treating heroin and pharmaceutical opiate addiction, said Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

It’s also a good pain management drug if used properly — taken exactly as prescribed, he said.

But the rising death rate from methadone, especially from prescriptions, is not surprising because of its increased overall use, Banta-Green said. “If they take it when it’s not prescribed, it’s dangerous. If you’re not opiate-tolerant, it could kill you.”

Zigler now talks about methadone and his son’s death to teen groups.

“My son’s death is tragic enough,’’ he said. “I’m trying to turn something horrible into something good — by educating the teens of the dangers of prescription drugs, especially methadone.’’

Andy Miller is an Atlanta-based freelance journalist. His work has been published by WebMD, AOL's WalletPop and AARP. He was a longtime staff writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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