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Meth Hazards

Written by Russ Schanlaub

A new enemy is ending careers and in some cases ending lives: meth labs. The DEA indicates the number of clandestine methamphetamine labs seized nationwide by DEA increased over 500% from 1994 to 2000, and continues growing in 2005.

While law enforcement officers in the Midwest have seen a dramatic increase in meth laboratories recently, their West Coast counterparts have been battling the labs for decades. Some unforeseen casualties are now beginning to surface.

With simple lack of knowledge to blame, police officers investigating meth labs in the 1980s and 1990s would rush into lab scenes to make arrests and photograph, document and collect evidence with absolutely no protective gear. Many agencies are still doing just that, entering clandestine lab scenes with little to no personal protective equipment (PPE).

Across the country, officers have been to the scenes of meth labs only to leave with a headache or mucus membrane problems—seemingly insignificant afflictions such as sinus type headaches, coughing, runny nose, burning eyes or blurry vision.

All of these are signs that something at that scene reacted negatively with our bodies. There are more and more documented cases of much worse after effects, some taking years to surface, some surfacing immediately.

A narcotics officer in Westminster, CA died of cancer at age 49, days after filing for disability insurance blaming repeated exposure to meth labs for his rare cancer.

A Denver police officer recently exposed to iodine vapors during a lab bust ended up in intensive care with pneumonia for several days. He still suffers from hearing loss and respiratory problems.

A Riverside County, CA Sheriff’s Detective was diagnosed with a rare condition known as orbital pseudo tumor, an accumulation of lymphoid tissue that damaged the muscles surrounding her eye. In Portland, OR, three officers developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, while a forth was diagnosed with a lung disease. Each of these claims had a medical report from a doctor indicating that it was probable that the condition was caused by the work in meth labs.

A retired Los Angeles Police Narcotics Supervisor was diagnosed in 1997 with a rare form of liver cancer that resulted in the removal of half of his liver. Another Los Angeles police officer who had investigated about 1,500 meth labs in his career developed a rare liver cancer that has been associated with breathing chemicals. Also in California, a 41-year-old drug agent with the Bureau of Narcotics Office was diagnosed with thymoma, another rare form of cancer. He had a baseball-sized tumor removed from behind his heart.

A 32-year-old Cromwell, OK officer lives with a severe case of gout which causes his him to hunch over and draw inward. He uses a walker to move around for simple chores like going to the bathroom. The constant pain and distortion along with mental anguish is being blamed for his two suicide attempts. A 30-year-old police officer from Yukon, OK assisted in the search for meth lab suspects ended up in the hospital that night, her lungs are permanently and irrevocably damaged.

While the exact long term exposure consequences have not been definitely determined, the one thing that experts agree on is that any exposure to an active or recently active scene of a meth lab carries a risk for short and long term medical problems.

Although there are disputes between employers and victims in some of the above cases, due to worker’s compensation and disability issues, the bottom line is that inhaling fumes from chemicals like benzene, red phosphorus, acetone, hydrogen chloride and iodine will probably cause damage at some level.

“If you breathe iodine at high levels one time, or phosphane gas one time, it can put you in the hospital, or it can kill you,” said Dr. John Martyny, a researcher with the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver.

The CDC concluded a report monitoring 14 states over a three year period, 1996 through 1999. According to that report there were 79 reports of police officers who sustained injuries at the scene of meth labs. Of those 79 injuries, 49 reported respiratory irritation, six reported dizziness/central nervous system symptoms, eight reported eye irritation, nine reported shortness of breath, four reported nausea/vomiting, two reported headaches, and one reported heat stress.

Transfer Contamination

Researchers have no doubt that the scene of a meth lab, even one that has been inactive for some time, will contain contamination of some type on surfaces, and or in the air. Those investigating the lab will likely end up with some of the contamination on their body or clothing. The investigator takes and transfers this contamination into his vehicle, office, and even home.

The recommendation from researchers: de-contaminate at the scene. A shower and change of clothing is no doubt an inconvenience, but a small one relative to the potential risks associated with not doing so.

In 2003, Martyny and other researchers conducted extensive research in the area of clandestine laboratories. Martyny accompanied law enforcement officers to various laboratory raids/seizures.

The research involved both the red phosphorous method and the anhydrous ammonia or “Nazi” method of manufacture. The research also included the construction of meth labs and actually manufacturing methamphetamine to replicate the entire process, thus allowing researchers to measure risks during different stages of the manufacturing process.

Researchers sampled 16 suspected drug lab locations, and conducted controlled cooks in a home and a hotel under realistic conditions.

Some observations made by researchers are alarming. Only 38% of the individuals that reported entering a laboratory area were decontaminated at the scene. Only 35% of those entering a laboratory site report that they wore a respirator while doing so. That means 65% did not wear a respirator. Studies suggest that 56% of the individuals involved in clandestine meth lab investigations report symptoms from at least one laboratory. Two reports are available on-line through the Colorado Endangered Children, Inc.

If law enforcement personnel enter a meth lab site, they will very likely be exposed to chemicals and contamination that exceed the levels recommended by experts. The level of exposure will depend on the cook method being used and the stage of the cook when personnel enter the site.

Any items or persons that were in the lab site are also contaminated, your contact with them—making arrests, patting down or handcuffing suspects—will probably result in you becoming contaminated. The contamination will definitely be on surfaces inside of the meth lab.

Even with gloves on, the probability of transfer contamination is high. An officer sets a camera on the counter to take notes or places his notebook on a piece of furniture while taking pictures, bagging evidence, etc. The contamination will stay with the equipment and will transfer to the officer’s hand at a later time when he is not wearing gloves.

It is highly likely that contamination at the scene of a lab site will be spread to others, including family members, if the proper decontamination steps are not taken.

The expert recommendation is that any personnel that are to be entering a suspect building should enter only with self-contained breathing apparatus and complete skin protection unless it is known that the lab has not been in recent operation and that all of the chemicals are under control.

If the lab is known to be out of operation and the chemicals are in a stable condition, then investigators could reduce the respiratory protection to a full-face air purifying respirator with organic vapor, acid gas and P100 combination cartridges.

To illustrate the transfer contamination, the Centers for Disease Control reports injuries to hospital personnel who became ill after contact with injured people from the scene of a meth lab who were contaminated.

The CDC suggests five initiatives that can reduce the risk of injuries among first responders: 1) increasing awareness of the risks associated with illicit drug laboratories; 2) encouraging training in situations involving hazardous materials; 3) identifying the nature of the event before entering the contaminated area; 4) wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment, and; 5) following a proper decontamination process after exposures to hazardous substances.

Most jurisdictions have had in place mandatory training in the area of hazardous materials for years. Policies regarding the treatment of meth labs shouldn’t differ much considering the chemicals that are either used to manufacture the methamphetamine or created during the cooking or salting out process. Benzene, red phosphorous, acetone, iodine, anhydrous ammonia, phosphane, sodium hydroxide, thionyl chloride, and hydrochloric gas are just some of the chemicals found at meth labs during or after a cook, many of them are also found in hazardous materials manuals.

Equipment and Training

The protection equipment recommended by the professionals may initially sound overwhelming, in reality it’s not as complicated as it may sound. These start with chemical protection suits. Light to moderate chemical protection suits are manufactured by several companies including: UltraSheild®, Micro-Max®, Tyvek®, Tychem® and CPF® to name a few. They are generally priced from $14 to $40.

The face masks with particle filters are also easily stored and carried. With basic training the masks can easily be dawned and maintained. Prices vary between $100 and $300, depending on quality and features. The self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) systems are a bit more costly and require a little more training and support from professionals. Chemical resistant boots and gloves are also affordable items that take up a minimum amount of space in squad cars.

The DEA Clandestine Laboratory Training School provides very thorough training for state and local police agencies, in addition to the training, any officer completing the class is provided with all equipment necessary for the methamphetamine laboratory investigations.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been working and advancing in the area of hazardous materials for decades. Training is available in the area of chemical protection and decontamination, their website offers links to specific training. The site also offers several courses that officers can take on an “independent study” basis. It’s even possible to earn college credits for the courses in addition to the valuable skills.

Local Emergency Management Agency may also offer training regarding hazardous materials, decontamination and the proper use of personal protection equipment. Many local EMA’s have access to basic equipment that can be provided to your agency free of charge, through grant projects from FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. Contact your local Emergency Management Agency for assistance available in your area.

The Oregon Department of Human Services website has an abundant amount of information relating to the hazards of meth. The site lists substances, the form they are found in and the exposure risks associated. The ODHS warns of the impacts of these chemicals on human health through four types of exposure, Inhalation (breathing), Skin Exposure (direct skin contact), Ingestion (swallowed), and Injection (skin puncture with a needle, broken glass, etc). The “deliberate” comment reminding us of potential “booby traps” that may be set for law enforcement personnel by the cooks.

Policy makers should consult with their state officials too regarding laws, administrative policies, and funding opportunities available for personal protection equipment and training.

Many private entities are offering training classes for law enforcement ranging from first responder/site assessment training to cleanup/decontamination. The DEA offers a “Basic” and “Advanced” training course for law enforcement personnel that offer the training as well as personal protection equipment.

The Missouri Standard

Planning, training and the proper equipment can make a difference in the safety of officers investigating clandestine laboratories. The State Of Missouri is a perfect example. According to EPIC and the National Clandestine Laboratory Database, Missouri led the country in 2003 for methamphetamine laboratories. The study shows that Missouri had a total of 824 laboratories seized during the year, yet during the same reporting year, no “serious” injuries to officers were reported. A few minor injuries, caused primarily by anhydrous ammonia were the only injury incidents reported.

Why so few injuries in the state leading the country in labs? “I credit it to the certification course and the training received by the officers,” Captain Ron Replogle, Director of Drug and Crime Control for the Missouri State Highway Patrol said. In Missouri, any officer investigating meth labs is required to attend a 40 hour certification course which is patterned after the DEA Clandestine Laboratory Course.

The meth lab training initiatives are co-sponsored by the Missouri Highway Patrol and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. To date the joint effort has certified nearly 700 police officers.

Any personnel that investigate these labs need to be trained in the proper use of personal protective equipment, including respirator systems and decontamination. Also, training is recommended to emphasize the risk of high potential for exposure to meth contamination and methods to reduce the “take home” levels of meth.

Failure to Train

Failing to properly train and equip those officers entering the methamphetamine laboratories is likely to be much more costly than doing so. Larger agencies should have personnel trained to the highest levels and many more trained to at least the minimum standards including any officer that may respond to the scene of a methamphetamine laboratory. Smaller agencies may consider a multi-agency approach to help defer the costs associated with training and equipment.

Local or state health departments and Emergency Management Agencies may be able to assist agencies in locating state specific training that will comply with OSHA regulations and grants or funding to help with the costs. OSHA guidelines for emergency personnel are covered under “Standards 29 CFR 1910.120” and can be previewed on-line at the OSHA website.

Local fire departments or hazardous materials officials may also be able to provide guidance in the area of training and equipment. Agencies that see meth labs as a current problem or a future problem may consider training alongside fire department, hazardous material and emergency management personnel to ensure that all first responders are on the same page.

Departmental policies should be designed to protect the officer from injury and to protect the department against claims for failure to provide the proper equipment or training for adequate protection of its personnel. Policies dictating a course of action for entering or conducting raids on suspected methamphetamine laboratories are essential.

Russell Schanlaub is a Special Agent with the Bi-State Drug Task Force in Northwestern Indiana. He is a certified instructor, a member of the Indiana Drug Enforcement Association (IDEA) and a charter member of ILEETA. He can be reached at Russman@ffni.com.


Published in Law and Order, Mar 2005

Rating : 6.8


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By Mike

How strange that these officers are becoming ill -or, is it that officers arent supposed to become ill as the rest of the humans do? These illnesses are not the result of the duties they performed around chemicals, but rather a result of life itself. Given the increase of officers on the payroll, it certainly shouldnt come as a surprise to anyone that more and more officers are in fact going to become ill with diseases and/or afflictions which everyone else on the planet is subject to through-out their lives. This is a truly mis-leading, short-sighted and narrow-minded article. PS. As for the doctor who certified that the officers had possibly became ill due to their exposure, Ill bet it was a government worker and/or a contracted doctor - even an MD. knows who butters their bread.

Submitted Mar 8 at 7:23 PM

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