Fact Check

Unfounded Rumors Claim Workers Given Fentanyl-Laced Water Bottles in San Diego, Chicago, Spokane

A series of notices shared online claimed that traffic-control workers had been injured or killed by strangers who gave them tainted bottles of water.

Published July 21, 2023

Updated July 24, 2023
 (Simon McGill/Getty Images)
Image Via Simon McGill/Getty Images
Claim:
Traffic flaggers in San Diego, Chicago, and Spokane were injured or killed after drinking fentanyl-laced water or Gatorade from bottles handed to them by strangers.

On July 20, 2023, we began to receive emails from readers who asked if there was any truth to scary-sounding tales of traffic-control flaggers dying after strangers had handed them bottles with water or Gatorade that had been laced with fentanyl. Examples of cities where these incidents had supposedly occurred included San Diego, Chicago, and Spokane.

While it's true that fentanyl itself is a highly addictive and potentially lethal drug, there's no evidence that strangers provided flaggers with tainted water bottles or other beverages that led to fentanyl poisonings or overdoses.

This rumor appears to fall under the category of what we refer to simply as scarelore, a type of urban legend or tall tale that is intended to frighten its audience, often prompting them to share is as a "safety warning" without questioning whether the story has any truth behind it.

In this article, we've examined several examples of this unfounded rumor that were being publicly shared online in June and July.

Note: Bear in mind that there may be more of these notices going around with the names of other cities and companies, with readers liking, commenting on, and sharing posts that were created on private Facebook profiles. Such private posts are only visible to small audiences.

San Diego

One such notice appeared as an image on Instagram and Twitter, and read, "Non-SDG&E Contractor Incident Alert," with "SDG&E" being a reference to the San Diego Gas & Electric utilities company.

Online users shared various notices that claimed one or more traffic-control flaggers were provided with water bottles by strangers that contained traces of fentanyl.

The report was dated as July 19, 2023, and read as follows:

ACTIVITY: Crew was working on a solar project.

INCIDENT SUMMARY: A local flagging contractor experienced a terrible incident where a random stranger driving by the jobsite offered two flaggers bottled water due to the high heat temperatures. Apparently, the water bottles given to the flaggers were laced with Fentanyl.

STATUS: Sadly, one of the flaggers died and the other is in critical condition after ingesting the water.

By phone, SDG&E Communications Manager Alex Welling told Snopes the utility had found no evidence that this incident ever occurred.

"After further evaluation, we discovered the source of this incident information could not be confirmed," Welling told us in a separate emailed statement.

"All external social media sources that posted this information have been taken down. However, while we couldn't confirm the validity of this incident, our safety reminders are still important to keep in mind."

Chicago

On July 20, another purported notice similar to the one about San Diego was shared online as an image, this time claiming the incident happened in Chicago.

The image showed a letterhead template for Wisconsin-based Precision Pipeline, LLC, titled, "Cautionary Incident Involving External Beverage Source."

Online users shared various notices that claimed one or more traffic-control flaggers were provided with water bottles by strangers that contained traces of fentanyl.

The first part of the notice read as follows:

We regret to inform you of a tragic incident that occurred two days ago involving NPL Pipeline Company in the Chicago suburbs. During the project, two flaggers were offered bottles of water by an unknown individual in a passing car. Sadly, one of the flaggers lost their life, and the other flagger is currently in critical condition. After conducting an investigation, it is suspected that the water provided to the flaggers was laced with fentanyl, a potent and dangerous opioid.

In response, NPL Construction Co. posted on Facebook and Twitter that the rumor was "entirely false."

We also reached out by phone to Precision Pipeline, LLC, to ask about the matter, but did not yet hear back.

Spokane

Weeks before the rumors referencing San Diego and Chicago we shared, two websites representing New York-based radio stations posted reports in early June saying that the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) was "warning employees against accepting water or food after a flagger became sick from fentanyl-laced water."

The stories did not present a copy of any official notices from NYSDOT, nor were we able to find any such notice online. Instead, the articles only mentioned an email dated May 25 that had been sent by a government employee working in Rensselaer County. In the email, the sender indicated they had been advised by NYSDOT about an incident involving a flagger and a fentanyl-laced water bottle that had purportedly occurred in Spokane, Washington.

The email from the employee read:

The Bureau of Public Safety was advised of an incident from NYS DOT regarding a flagging company operating in Spokane, WA. An employee of the flagging company accepted some water from the traveling public as they were working on the roadway. The employee started to feel ill and went to the hospital, and it was later discovered the water was laced with fentanyl.

We found no local news articles, police reports, or evidence of any kind that this incident had taken place in Spokane.

Still, we reached out to NYSDOT and the Rensselaer County official who sent the email in order to ask about the rumor. We also contacted the police department and other local officials in Spokane, the city where the crime supposedly took place.

We received a response from Kirstin Davis, communications manager for the city of Spokane, who told us, "We are not aware of any reports of tainted water being dispensed by construction flaggers in the city of Spokane."

This story will be updated if we receive any further details.

Wright Traffic Control

In addition to the three aforementioned cities, we also found an image of a fourth purported "safety alert" being shared in a Facebook comment. It showed letterhead for the company Wright Traffic Control. According to the company's website, it's based in Beaver, Pennsylvania, and operates in several states.

The incident report read, "A non-WTC flagging crew, flagging for one of our clients, was out on a job. A random stranger driving by offered them a bottle of water and now one of the flaggers is dead and the other is in critical condition."

Online users shared various notices that claimed one or more traffic-control flaggers were provided with water bottles by strangers that contained traces of fentanyl.

This alert contained no identifying information specifying when or where this had supposedly happened. The top part of the image read, "Date: Always," "Time: 24 HRS/Day," and "Location/Area: Everywhere."

Additionally, the notice showed a picture of an unmarked water bottle. A reverse-image search for this photograph quickly found the same picture on the AnyPromo.com marketing website. In other words, it wasn't a unique photograph from a real incident, but a stock photograph instead.

We contacted Wright Traffic Control by phone and email and will update this story if they pass along any statements or further information.

Gatorade

In a tweet from July 21, a user shared a similar rumor about bottles being laced with fentanyl, except this time the beverage involved was supposedly Gatorade. Based on the numbers of engagements that replies to the tweet were receiving, we could tell that it looked to have been quite popular. However, after receiving a wave of skeptical responses, the person who posted the original tweet changed their account's visibility to be private, which meant that we could not see any further information about how many users it had reached.

The tweet read as follows:

This world is so shitty…. My dad just called to lmk a car passed by his construction site yesterday and offered 4 workers gatorades …. Now today 1 is dead and 3 are fighting for their lives because those bitch ass mother fuckers put fentanyl in it . I'm sick

A different user also tweeted the Gatorade-specific rumor on the same day, but did not mention any identifiable details:

If family or friends work construction please tell them not to take water/Gatorade from strangers driving by. Dealing with a serious situation w/ my client where water was laced with fentanyl and one of our crew members passed away. Temp. rising, be careful everybody.

We reached out to both of these users to request credible data and sources. This story will be updated should we receive any responses.

Based on the way these kinds of rumor cycles have unfolded in the past, it would not be much of a surprise if bogus "safety alerts" for more U.S. cities crop up in the future, offering no evidence that such a thing had ever happened.

Sources

Ibrahim, Nur. "Snopes-Tionary: What Is 'Scarelore'?" Snopes, 5 Oct. 2022, https://www.snopes.com/articles/458144/snopestionary-scarelore/.

Polly. "NYS DOT Sends Out Warning After Flagger Given Fentanyl Laced Water." Big Frog 104, 1 June 2023, https://bigfrog104.com/fentanyl-laced-water-dot-warning/.

"Promotional Bottled Spring Water - 16.9 Oz." AnyPromo.com, https://www.anypromo.com//food-drink/bottled-water-beverages/bottled-spring-water-169-oz-p631737.

Rush, Claire. "Fentanyl Fuels String of Deadly Weekend Overdoses in Portland, Oregon." The Associated Press, 15 May 2023, https://apnews.com/article/drug-overdose-deaths-fentanyl-portland-oregon-94d880c06809bc5248d8c14f34a92a64.

"We Are Aware of a False Report Stating NPL Employees Were Harmed after Drinking Drug-Laced Water Offered to Them by a Member of the Public." Facebook, NPL Construction Co., 21 July 2023, www.facebook.com/NPLConstructionCo/posts/pfbid0jeubn675oA4vNyfVhnWq7pSX6srzF2DkC1y5ypiCa5mozCwD6arGBEjGy9v29rLKl.

Welling, Alex. Communications Manager, Wildfire Resiliency & Operations, SDG&E. Email, 21 July 2023.

"What Is Fentanyl?" Poison.org, https://www.poison.org/articles/what-is-fentanyl.

Updates

July 21, 2023: This report was updated with information about the rumor circulating with claims of Gatorade bottles being involved, too.

July 24, 2023: This report was updated with a statement from Kirstin Davis, communications manager for the city of Spokane.

Jordan Liles is a Senior Reporter who has been with Snopes since 2016.