LORETTO - "Limbs just fall off."
That's what desomorphine - a heroin derivative that can be made from codeine, iodine and red phosphorus - can do to the body if an addict develops gangrene, said treatment specialist Kenneth Dickinson.
Speaking to well over 100 people Friday at a St. Francis University educational seminar, Dickinson showed photos of the drug's after effects, drawing gasps from the audience.
Aimed at providing educational tools and resources to area school and college officials, drug and alcohol clinicians and substance-abuse counselors, the lectures were a scary reminder to some that today's users have more expertise on the chemistry and process of making drugs than ever before.
There are also seemingly endless possibilities for new designer drugs - so many that doctors and law enforcement have a hard time keeping up with what people are cooking, Dickinson said.
"That's how they beat us," said Kevin Price, a the Cambria County Drug Task Force detective.
People can change the chemical structure of an old drug and make it untraceable in drug tests, Price said.
And before legislation such as the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, derivatives like synthetic marijuana or bath salts were legal. By the time they were outlawed, new drugs had taken their place, he said.
The seriousness of the nationwide drug epidemic was not lost on the audience, who learned of the eight reported heroin overdoses Thursday night in the Johnstown area - accounting for a dozen overdoses total over the last three days.
According to Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan, between 6 and 9 p.m. four overdoses were reported in the city's Moxham neighborhood, two in East Taylor Township and two more from Conemaugh Township in Somerset County.
Callihan said the overdoses seem to be linked to specific stamp bags labeled "Seven of Hearts."
It's unclear whether the heroin was laced with fentanyl - the substance responsible for approximately two dozen Pittsburgh-area heroin deaths that occurred in a matter of days earlier this year - but stamp bags recovered by police are being sent for testing and Attorney General Kathleen Kane has been notified, Callihan said.
Callihan also said the dozen overdose patients were able to be treated and released thanks to fast emergency-response time and because the users were not getting high alone.
Callihan said investigators are looking into the heroin's source and who introduced it to the area.
"This is a dirty dose, this particular type of stamp bag," she said.
In between speakers, attendees swapped stories about campus or hospital incidents and the people they've seen transformed by addiction.
Emily Savoie, residence director for Seton Hill University in Greensburg, said she learned many new things from the seminar to help combat drug culture. It's scary to think drugs are so prevalent, she said, and that students can make them on campus or in their dorms.
Charmaine Strong, Seton Hill dean of students, said the information was overwhelming but important to educators.
"You can't bury your head in the sand," she said.
Dickinson said within a matter of days, residents can expect to see "a lot of out-of-state license plates heading to Johnstown," once people learn of the overdoses.
It's an unusual conclusion to make that a particular batch of heroin possibly responsible for overdoses, or even deaths, is desirable, he said.
But "the addict is thinking, 'It won't happen to me,'" he said, and will want it despite the risks.
Price said incidents like Thursday's send a clear message to parents and teachers that drugs are a problem for every age, race and gender. It touches every social class, and it's in the schools, he said.
"The message is the message: Heroin is everywhere. Heroin is the biggest problem that our community is facing - that our community has ever had to face," he said. "This drug is basically, methodically eliminating an entire generation."