DARIEN — David Knauf, the town’s director of health, is concerned about the recent rise in overdose deaths and opioid addiction in Connecticut.

Actually, you might even say Knauf is alarmed. And with good reason.

According to data recently released by the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, overdose deaths are projected to reach 832 in 2016, an increase of 103 over 2015. The chief medical examiner’s report is based on 208 accidental overdoses in the first quarter of 2016 alone, more than half of which involved heroin and an increasing number of which involve the super-potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl.

Addiction to opioids such as heroin or fentanyl is often preceded by addiction to pain killers such as Oxycontin or Percocet. In Darien, Knauf is working with First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and the Police Department to help keep potential abusers out of harm’s way — primarily young adult men — and to spread awareness.

Knauf sat down for an interview on a recent Friday to discuss the severity of the issue in Darien. He also talked about how the town is working to combat the effects of heroin and other opioids, and how parents can keep their children and loved ones off drugs.

Q: Where did this opioid problem come from?

A: The opioid problem kind of started because doctors felt the measure of success for a physician was to prevent their patients from feeling pain. So you prescribe things to minimize pain.

Prescriptions for pain medications went up, up, up, and all of a sudden people started realizing there’s a market for these drugs. People started using opioids illegally, and going drug shopping between doctors. So there was this out of control use of pain pills.

As a result, the government started tightening down on prescribed opioids. I think last year was the first year we’ve seen a decline in these prescribed pain killers. And then heroin use started rising because as these pills became more expensive and less available, people became desperate and made the switch.

There are people that really need the assistance of pain medication. But people die from this stuff, and not everybody can just stop taking an addictive drug. The other dangerous part about the opioid epidemic is that they were initially promoted as not addictive. Well, time has shown that that was wrong.

Q: How real is the threat to Darien?

A: Well, that’s what I’m trying to assess. Getting real information as to the prevalence of the problem is very hard to do. Right now, I have a summer intern who is a masters student and I’ve charged her with trying to dig in and find out what we have going on here in town.

I get some information from the police department because they’re doing a lot of the response, or from Post 53. So that information doesn’t come to me directly. But, anecdotally, I can tell you that there’s never a discussion with the police department in which that issue doesn’t come up.

We also don’t have direct access to admission data for hospitals. But people who often go to the hospital can have an overdose and maybe fall, or have other injuries. So the reason for going into the hospital may have multiple codings and it may be difficult to tease out how many people are actually going in as a result of an overdose.

Q: What steps are being taken by the town?

A: It’s a discussion piece. We want to raise awareness and change the perception that it’s not something that affects Darien. Heroin is here. And it’ll help if we can provide real-life stories and publicize how many times there’s an overdose call or Narcan is used.

I’m involved in a Stamford task force called the Communities for Action Group. We’re getting ourselves involved in planning and reacting. Right now, our focus is going to be on getting regular information out.

Q: What is the demographic primarily affected?

A: The primary users tend to be in their 20s or 30s, mostly male.

Q: What is the danger of fentanyl? Why the sudden rise in its use?

A: One of the reasons why fentanyl is becoming more widespread and we’re hearing about it more is because heroin is a processed drug that has to move through channels. It’s underground. But you can make fentanyl at home and cut your heroin with it and the quality control isn’t there like it would be in a pharmaceutical laboratory.

It’s dangerous. People are used to doing a certain amount of heroin and then you get this stuff, which is like a super high-test. You can take the same amount of fentanyl that you would heroin and it can kill you. And it’s not like it’s something that comes labeled.

Q: What can parents do?

A: Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention to what your kids are doing, who they’re hanging out with. I think a lot of us don’t want to believe that our kids could have issues, but they do sometimes and it’s really important as a parent to pay attention to that stuff. Have the conversation with your kids.

Q: Are there red flags to look for?

A: What everyone says is personality changes and changes in friends. We all change as we grow up. We can be a little moody in our adolescent years because it’s tough being a kid. In this area, there’s a high level of expectation so there’s a great deal of pressure on kids and that can manifest itself in funny ways. Different people have different ways of coping with stress.

The other thing we need to pay attention to are sports injuries. They have been the origin of a lot of subsequent abuse. And parents may not even realize that all of a sudden, a kid gets hurt on the field, gets a prescription because his knee or his back hurts, the prescription ends and then they move on to something else. They start to get stuff from their friends or they find a different communication network to obtain drugs.

Q: More broadly, what can we do on a national level to help curb opioid abuse?

A: When you get meds at the pharmacy, everything comes in a little bottle. They’re all the same. My suggestion is to consider having those that are addictive come in a bright red container — one with a warning label.

You pick up a pack of cigarettes and it has the skull and crossbones on it and says, ‘This may cause death.’ Same thing with alcohol. Well, I think we need to start labeling those prescription pills the same way. We need to let people know that this stuff — while it’s a prescribed drug — can have a lasting impact.

Certain things take on a measure of importance. Somehow, we need to increase the level of importance surrounding this issue so that people become more aware of the fact that it’s not just a New York City problem, or a problem in Bridgeport, or a problem in Stamford. It’s a problem here at home. It has no boundaries.

justin.papp@scni.com; dariennewsonline.com