A rash of ecstasy-related deaths in the province has been linked to a highly toxic and yet unpredictable chemical found in the toxicology results of its victims.
Paramethoxy-metamphetamine (PMMA) has been associated with at least five ecstasy deaths in B.C. over the last six months.
On Jan. 16, the BC Coroners Service confirmed that it was investigating a fourth 2012 fatality believed to be the result of an ecstasy overdose -a 16-year-old Langley male.
"It's a learning process for us; we're gathering information as we go along," said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe.
Over the past six years, the rates of ecstasy-related fatalities in the province have more than doubled.
Whereas 2006 saw seven deaths in the province, the three years leading up to 2011 each saw at least 20 people lose their life to the drug. Last weekend's death brings the early 2012 count to four.
"Does that mean that we'll see these numbers continue to climb over the years? We certainly hope not," Lapointe said.
The traditional chemical found in ecstasy is MDMA, or methylenedioxy methamphetamine. But tablets of the drug often contain a mixture of other substances and usually in unknown quantities.
Sunshine Coast RCMP issued a public warning after two females overdosed on ecstasy just before Christmas Day, citing significant reactions to the drug that resulted in hospitalizations.
While PMMA has a similar effect to MDMA, its deadly nature stems from two major differences.
PMMA has both a higher toxicity and slower onset, leading users of the drug to dangerously up their doses, suspecting a weak batch of pills.
Of the four deaths so far in 2012, at least two have been linked to PMMA.
"The purity of the ingredients is never known. What exactly is included in the tablet is never known," Lapointe stressed.
The province's chief medical officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, echoed Lapointe's concerns.
According to Kendall, the symptoms can include overheating, irregular heartbeat and loss of consciousness.
"Seven per cent of Caucasians lack the enzyme that sort of breaks it down in the body, so this is why one person can react and the six other people who took it, nothing happens to them," he said, explaining the dangerous nature of the chemical.
According to Kendall, the presence of PMMA in ecstasy tablets and powders is likely a deliberate contamination of the substance to either save money or to ease the process of production.
"So there's some discussion whether you could make PMMA by mistake if you weren't a very good chemist," he said. "I think that's probably very difficult to do."
In Burnaby and Vancouver, forensic drug chemists like Richard Laing with Health Canada are working to understand the drug and the new threat it poses to users.
As manager of drug analysis with Health Canada's lab in Burnaby, Laing said the laboratory's first observation of PMMA in a sample of ecstasy was made Jan. 13, 2012.
"It's very novel, it's very unique and we haven't seen this here prior," Laing said.
The chemist said the substance is likely created in clandestine labs and has links to a chemical called para-methoxy-amphetamine or PMA.
"When we started seeing ecstasy on a regular basis in our lab 10 years ago, a little bit more than that even, we saw relatively high purity ecstasy tablets," Laing said.
From a typical concentration of 100mg per tablet, the actual MDMA content has dropped to levels of 65 to 70mg, with impurities making up the rest of the samples, Laing said.
In the recent sample, Laing said the lab found PMMA to be the majority component with a smaller concentration of MDMA present. He added that it remains too soon to speculate on the typical distribution of the substance.
"Because it's novel, it presents a lot of problems for us," Laing said.