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Facing the Opioid Epidemic

Every 24 minutes, a life is lost to prescription drug overdose in the U.S. - over 22,000 people in 2015 alone.

The Prescribed to Death art exhibit includes a memorial wall that puts a face on the opioid epidemic. The 22,000 pills are carved with the faces of people who died from prescription opioid overdose in 2015.

At the National Safety Council, I work every day on preventing drug overdoses. One of my most urgent priorities is educating people about the risks of opioid pain medications and how easily someone can take a fatal dose.

A simple mistake can kill. Death happens quickly when people take a single opioid with glass of wine or on top of a sleeping pill, or take too many too close together. The combination dangerously slows breathing or may stop it.

People believe opioid medications are safe because they’re legal and they’ve been prescribed by a doctor. The facts are that opioids can be highly addictive even when taken as prescribed, and opioid misuse is a gateway to illicit drugs like heroin.

Felicia Miceli can tell you how a prescription for opioids can result in a family tragedy. Felicia’s son Louie was prescribed an opioid painkiller for a high school football injury. Becoming addicted to painkillers led Louie to heroin, and he ultimately died of an overdose.

The Micelis’ story is just one of many that inspired the National Safety Council to create the Stop Everyday Killers public education campaign. Every 24 minutes, a life is lost prescription drug overdose in the U.S., over 22,000 people in 2015 alone.

As part of the campaign, a “Prescribed to Death” exhibit was open to the public in Chicago November 10-17. The exhibit’s memorial wall illustrated the personal aspect of the opioid epidemic. Each of the 22,000 white pills that lined the exhibit wall was carved with the face of someone who died from an opioid overdose. As people walked through the exhibit, a carving machine etched another face onto a “pill” every 24 minutes, and they collected into a pile. Imagine it: 22,000 lives, reduced to small plastic renderings. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbors, classmates – all with promising lives ahead, one gone nearly every half hour.

The exhibit was visually stunning, sobering and informative – watch this short film and experience it for yourself.


Visitors to the exhibit received “Opioids: Warn Me” labels for their health insurance cards. The label is intended to prompt a conversation between prescribers and patients about the risks of opioids and possible alternatives. Visitors were also offered pre-paid envelopes to help them easily dispose of unused prescription medications. Simply drop the unneeded pills in the mail and be assured they’ll be disposed of properly – not thrown in the trash where someone could find them, or flushed down the toilet where they contaminate the water supply. You can get these labels and envelopes for free at http://www.nsc.org/takeaction.

Please visit www.StopEverydayKillers.org  to see the virtual memorial and find out what you can do to keep yourself and your family safe from opioid misuse. The “Prescribed to Death” exhibit will be traveling the country, and the website will list future event dates.

For me, those 22,000 faces are a call to action. I hope they will inspire you too, because we should not accept 62 deaths every day. We can save lives and create hope – one person, one face, at a time.

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