Pubdate: Sun, 01 Jun 2003
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2003 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Megan Twohey, Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


As Methamphetamine Makers Multiply, Risks Not Just For Users

Fourteen N.C. firefighters and police officers have been injured in the 
past 18 months by fires and chemical fumes from methamphetamine labs, 
prompting state and local officials to rush to craft strategies to keep 
more people from being hurt.

Firefighters and police aren't the only people at risk from exposure to 
meth labs, which are rapidly spreading through the Carolinas. The compounds 
used to make the increasingly popular drug can easily explode, endangering 
an entire neighborhood. And people who live in homes that once had meth 
labs can suffer from residual exposure to chemicals.

"You're dealing with people who aren't chemists," said Van Shaw, a 
coordinator for the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation's Clandestine 
Laboratory Response Unit. "They're going to make mistakes. In some cases 
they can be fatal."

Meth labs began showing up in the Carolinas about three years ago. Since 
then, the labs have spread like wildfire, with the numbers exploding in 2002.

The SBI investigated nine meth labs in 2000; last year, the number was 98. 
Already this year the SBI has discovered 68 labs, and the bureau expects 
hundreds will be busted by year's end, Shaw said.

"Most agencies are trying to be proactive, to get things in place early 
before the problem gets even worse," he said.

In South Carolina, 92 meth labs were discovered in fiscal 2002, up from the 
eight found in fiscal 2001, according to the federal Drug Enforcement 
Administration, which handles drug lab cleanups there. Fifty labs have been 
uncovered in the past six months.

No statistics are available on whether any S.C. public safety workers have 
been injured by meth-lab chemicals.

When snorted, smoked, injected or swallowed, meth produces a high that can 
last 12 hours or more. It generally sells for $100 a gram and $2,800 an ounce.

Up until 2000, meth, also known as crank, was mostly imported from drug 
traffickers in the West and Midwest, where the drug has been popular for 
decades, Shaw said. Since then, more and more people in the Carolinas have 
been learning to make it themselves, sometimes using instructions on the 
Internet. The drug is cheap and easy to make in liquid, powder or rock form.

Most of the labs are in rural areas, especially in Western North Carolina.

Last month, the SBI discovered a meth lab in a Shelby home in Cleveland 
County west of Charlotte. The suspect had a previous conviction for 
manufacturing methamphetamines.

To the north, in Rutherford County, four labs have been found so far this year.

Last weekend, U.S. Park Police found a lab in a Ford Escort on the 
Blueridge Parkway near Boone in Watauga County.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, on the other hand, have found only three labs 
in 10 years, according to police records.

The compounds used to make methamphetamines can be extracted from cold 
medicine, matchbooks, paint thinner and other things that can be purchased 
at convenience and hardware stores.

The compounds are also toxic and potentially lethal.

Vapors from ephedrine, lithium metal and anhydrous ammonia and the other 
chemicals that go into meth can attack and damage mucous membranes, skin, 
eyes, lungs and the central nervous system. Mixed improperly, some of the 
compounds can explode.

Five to six pounds of toxic waste are produced with every pound of 

Forced To Adjust

Six volunteer firefighters were injured this year in Deep Gap, a small town 
near Boone in Watauga County, which leads the state in meth-lab seizures. 
Seventeen have been found in the county so far this year.It wasn't until 
after they put out a fire in a mobile home in January that firefighters 
found out it contained an illegal lab for mixing meth.

Most severely injured was Darien South.

When he opened a side panel of the charred home after the fire to check for 
hot spots, South was overwhelmed by chemical vapors. They burned his lungs 
and chest. Within a few minutes, South was coughing up blood.

"It felt like someone had taken an ax to my head and split it, the headache 
was so bad," South said. "I could barely breathe."

He suffered permanent lung damage and had to quit his regular job 
delivering soft drinks.

Because the problem is so severe there, Watauga County officials have been 
the state's most proactive in developing policies to protect emergency 
workers and innocent bystanders, Shaw said.

This year, for example, the Watauga County Sheriff's Office began executing 
search warrants for suspected labs near schools early in the morning or 
late at night, when students aren't around.

After Darien South was injured, the Deep Gap Volunteer Fire Department 
began requiring firefighters to wear a mask and air pack at all times when 
they're on the scene of a fire.

And the county's fire marshal is training firefighters to recognize signs 
that a meth lab might be in a burning home, such as large quantities of 
matchbooks, cold-medicine boxes or fuel cans.

In April, the Appalachian District Health Department, which serves Watauga, 
recommended that no one re-enter lab sites until the state develops 
guidelines for acceptable levels of exposure to the chemicals, which can 
linger in carpets, walls and other surfaces. The department is searching 
for companies that do postbust cleanups.

Threat To Children

Watauga authorities also are working to protect children living in homes 
where methamphetamines are manufactured.

They say they consider children living in homes with meth labs to be 
abused. Normally, children in homes where adults deal drugs are considered 
to be neglected, not abused.

"Typical drug dealing doesn't place kids in the physical harm of 
chemicals," said Chad Slagle, the social worker in child protective 
services for Watauga's Department of Social Services.

"Our agency has taken the stance that if someone has a child in a home with 
a meth lab, the child is at risk of physical harm," Slagle said.

Since January, 14 Watauga County children have been removed from homes 
housing meth labs. In one case, the Sheriff's Office found a suspected lab 
in a child's bedroom, tucked in the back of a closet.

The children are allowed to stay with parents if they don't return to the 
site of the lab. If the parents do return to that house, the department 
places the children with relatives or in foster care, fearing the children 
could be harmed by lingering toxic chemical residue.

The children won't be returned to the home where the meth lab was located 
until the state develops guidelines for declaring the homes free of 
contamination, Slagle said.

In the meantime, the department and local churches pay to replace all of 
the children's clothes out of fear they might be contaminated. Parents also 
must get mental health counseling and safety training at the fire marshal's 
office or face losing custody.

State Action

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, patrol officers are offered training on how to 
recognize the labs, said Capt. Keith Dinkins of the Police Department's 
vice and narcotics unit. The training will become mandatory next year, he 
said.The department also is working closely with pharmacies and department 
stores that sell products that can be used to make methamphetamines.

"We're trying to stay ahead of this thing," Dinkins said.

So are state officials.

In response to questions from Watauga County, the N.C. Department of Health 
and Human Services is collecting information on meth labs so it can provide 
guidelines on safe exposure levels to the chemicals, said Bill Plate, 
medical evaluation and risk assessment supervisor at the department.

Other state agencies are also taking steps to combat the labs.

The SBI has recommended that state legislators introduce legislation that 
would stiffen penalties for people who run meth labs in homes with children 
or senior citizens.

And N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper is planning a summit on meth labs this 
summer to coordinate a statewide response to the growing threat. He said 
local law enforcement, health agencies and others will hear from officials 
in Western states about policies in place there.

"We realize it's going to take a massive effort to fight this battle," 
Cooper said.

Meth Labs

A breakdown of methamphetamine labs discovered this year in the Charlotte 
area. None has been found in Mecklenburg.

Burke: 1

Caldwell: 2

Cleveland: 2

Iredell: 1

Rowan: 1

Rutherford: 4

Stanly: 2

Union: 1
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager