Vancouver police officers and support staff will soon have access to the nasal-spray form of naloxone to protect themselves against accidental exposure to toxic opioids such as fentanyl.

Chief Adam Palmer said employees are increasingly coming into contact with potentially dangerous drugs at work.

He said it's essential to provide them with medication used to block or reverse the effects of opioids, which have caused hundreds of overdose deaths in Vancouver and across the country.

Exposure to the drugs can also cause extreme drowsiness, slowed breathing or loss of consciousness.

Sgt. Brian Montague said there are reports of police officers in the United States experiencing overdose symptoms during drug investigations, including two officers with the New York Police Department.

"They began to get dizzy, it affected their breathing, they began to pass out and both of them said they thought they were going to die," he said Friday.

Three officers in British Columbia also recently experienced overdose symptoms after handling drugs or exhibits contaminated with fentanyl, Montague said, adding the cities involved have not been disclosed.

"Front-line staff and support staff in our property office, in our gang section, in our drug section, are coming into contact with fentanyl and very strong opioids on a regular basis," he said.

"We actually have a piece of equipment that was brought in from a drug lab awhile back and it's badly contaminated with fentanyl. It's just sitting in a corner of the property office and they don't know what to do with it."

Montague said the Vancouver Police Department wrote to federal Health Minister Jane Philpott in March to request that naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, be approved in a nasal form, the same as in the U.S.

The approval came in July.

Montague said all staff will be trained to use the nasal form of naloxone in the next few weeks, but officers can choose whether they want to carry it.

They will not be required to use it on anyone experiencing an opioid overdose in keeping with a policy the Vancouver Police Department adopted in 2003 to not attend overdose calls.

"The only time we would go to an overdose is if we were requested specifically by ambulance because of a violent situation or the overdose had already resulted in a death and we were investigating the death."

While paramedics have been supplied with injectable naloxone for use on someone who is overdosing, the VPD has been opposed to officers doing the same because they would be investigated by the Independent Investigations Office if the person died.

"It becomes an in-custody death," Montague said, adding the policy "defies logic" because paramedics or firefighters working alongside officers trying to save someone's life would not be subjected to an investigation but instead serve as witnesses.

Deputy Chief Mike Serr of the Abbotsford Police Department said he is not aware of police elsewhere in Canada providing staff with nasal-spray naloxone for safety reasons.

However, Serr, who is chairman of the drug abuse committee for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said his department will also start issuing the nasal-spray form of naloxone to its front-line officers because opioids have become so prevalent, even for school-liaison officers.

"It's evolving so fast across Canada right now that I think everyone's just coming to grips with it," he said of the escalating opioid-overdose issue.

The BC Coroners Service has said there were 433 opioid-related deaths between Jan. 1 and July 31, a nearly 75-per-cent increase compared with the same period in 2015.

The number of deaths between Jan. 1 and June 30 where fentanyl was detected has leapt to 238, a 250-per-cent increase over the same period last year.