Meth Mess

Methamphetamine labs are springing up all over--in homes, apartments, motels. Who's making sure the toxins left behind are cleaned up? Nobody.

The stuff is pinkish, and the detectives say it's known on the street as "Rosebud." (Users are prone to name meth by its shade--for example, Lemon Drop and Rocky Mountain Red--perhaps unaware that color denotes the level of toxic contamination.)

Before leaving, Taylor sticks a red sticker on the front door. It says: "WARNING! A clandestine laboratory for the manufacture of illegal drugs was seized at this location. Known hazardous chemicals have been disposed of pursuant to law.

"However, there still may be hazardous substances or waste products on this property, either in buildings or in the ground itself. Please exercise caution while on these premises."

The Enviro Solve workers carefully haul off the chemicals the detectives don't need as evidence.

"It's a shame," Tim Taylor says. "The landlord will probably take our sign off the door, then rent the place to folks who don't know what happened here. It's the same at the motel rooms where cooks make their stuff. When I take my family [into motels] on the road, I check for red phosphorous stains, for certain smells. I'm not paranoid. I just don't think there's enough cleaning up going on."

No agency in Arizona is tracking the health effects on families who move into contaminated homes, whose kids play in yards where gallons of chemicals have been dumped, whose interior walls are permeated with carcinogens.

Says Amy Rezzonico, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality: "At this point, we don't know the long-term health effects of meth labs. Our job is to make sure that any imminent public health threat is abated."

Rezzonico notes that the federal government has funded testing in three states--not Arizona--to establish the effects of exposure to meth-lab chemicals. The studies haven't been completed.

In addition, the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy recently proposed giving a $1 million grant to the Environmental Protection Agency concerning meth-lab cleanup.

The proposal includes the cautionary language:
"These hazardous [chemical] substances pose the most significant threats to the law enforcement officials and other first responders (fire and health department personnel) that initially secure the site. Threats to the surrounding human population and environment also exist, making these clandestine drug labs a significant threat until the hazardous materials can be analyzed, properly categorized, managed and then properly disposed."

As part of the grant, EPA will inform local governments about the federal Superfund's reimbursement mechanism for meth-lab cleanup--up to $25,000 per "response."

"When law enforcement agenies discover [meth labs], the resulting property is essentially an uncontrolled hazardous waste site often containing incompatible chemicals," the proposal notes.

By any measure, many chemicals used in underground meth production could be lumped under the rubric: "Things That Blow Up and Cause Cancer." The list includes chemicals such as benzyl chloride, benzyl cyanide and other forms of benzene, all known carcinogens.

Toxic solvents such as chloroform and acetone (also known to cause cancer) often are used to "clean" freshly made meth after it's been cooked into crystal form.

Another precursor chemical is methylamine, so flammable that when mixed with water, it can ignite. Red phosphorous--found in fireworks, road flares and terrorist bombs--is found in the most popular street-meth recipes.

Phoenix detective Jim Gibbs recalls a September 1997 meth-lab fire near 39th Avenue and Beardsley, in a trailer park. It stunned everyone when the water-soaked ground near the extinguished fire started to smolder.

"It was the red and white 'P' [phosphorous]," Gibbs says. "The ground literally was smoking. It never ceases to amaze me that people put this stuff into their bodies."

Phoenix police say it cost about $40,000 to clean that site, including the removal of more than four cubic yards of contaminated soil.

Some meth cooks raise the risks by using ether as a chemical "shortcut." When stored improperly, ether quickly degrades, as explosive organic peroxide crystals form around the lid of its container. If those crystals are disturbed by, say, unscrewing the lid, the ether may detonate.

Another recipe calls for cooks to pipe hydrogen gas (see the 1938 Hindenburg disaster) into a pressure cooker, where it reacts with other flammable chemicals under thousands of pounds of pressure. The process is known among meth cooks as "the bomb method," for obvious reasons.

Cooking meth routinely produces a mix of toxic, carcinogenic fumes, hydriodic acid vapors and phosphene gas being the most common. Hydriodic acid, often used as a commercial disinfectant in dairies, is corrosive enough to bore through concrete. When hydriodic acid is heated--as it is in meth labs--the caustic fumes easily scorch lung tissue.

Cooking meth with red phosphorous creates phosphene gas, also nasty stuff that can cause internal chemical burns and permanent respiratory damage. If ingested in sufficient concentration, "red P" and phosphene gas can cause a quick but painful death.

A handful of meth cooks have the expertise to effectively disperse toxic fumes by containing and bubbling the gas or vapor through water to render it harmless. Most cooks, however, employ a less refined safety procedure--simply venting the poisonous fumes out of a window.

They do so because they otherwise might die. The savviest cooks, such as the one on East Campbell, employ gas masks. That way, they can release the vapors into a neighborhood slowly, and reduce their chances of arousing suspicion. But few, if any, cooks pay any attention to the carcinogenic stuff--such as heated benzene--that soaks into plaster and wood.

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