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.

Editor's note: Paul Rubin and David Holthouse reported extensively on crystal methamphetamine in the December 18 issue in a 16-page special section, "Methology."

Valley drug cops busted 11 crystal methamphetamine labs during the first three weeks of January. One of them was a three-bedroom apartment in the 1700 block of East Campbell Avenue.

The living-room walls of the apartment are decorated with a ram's horns and a plaque honoring someone's "Outstanding Sales and Service" in 1993.

The pamphlet "A Woman's Guide to Achieving Personal Power" is on a bedside stand, near a used syringe and the Cliffs Notes for George Orwell's 1984.

Hard-core porn magazines and videotapes sit in a pile on the floor, near a variety of sex toys and a pair of handcuffs. A diary contains two consecutive entries that read, "Forgot to sleep last night."

More than three weeks have passed since the tenants cooked their last batch of meth here, but the drug's scent, chemical and sickly sweet, lingers.

Phoenix police officer Michael Strong sits on a folding chair just inside the apartment's open front door. His assignment is to make sure no one enters the cluttered abode until detectives get a search warrant from a judge.

The landlord evicted the couple on December 18 for not paying rent, and they're nowhere to be found. It wasn't until a few hours ago that a cleaning crew discovered the meth lab in a back bedroom.

"This place is so full of chemicals, it's ridiculous," says Strong, a rookie cop. "It smells lousy in here. What makes people get into this crap?"

A cheap, potent stimulant, methamphetamine is Arizona's most popular hard drug--more popular than crack or heroin. Much of the meth in the Valley comes from "superlabs" operated by Mexican drug cartels, capable of producing up to 50 pounds of meth a day, at obscene profits.

But the Valley also is home to hundreds of small meth labs that produce a few ounces or grams per batch. The growth of these generally crude operations--dubbed "Beavis and Butt-head labs" by narcs--is reflected in federal Drug Enforcement Agency statistics.

In 1995, police statewide busted 56 meth labs, or about one a week. Last year, an Arizona lab went down about every three days--in hotel rooms, storage spaces, apartments, houses, trailers, vans and semis.

If 1998's pace--a lab bust every other day in the Valley alone--continues, all records will be shattered this year.

"The normal lab we come across is in a messy, cramped room," says veteran narcotics sergeant Dave Minson, gesturing inside at the East Campbell apartment to prove his point.

"Quality control is a joke. Usually, we'll go in there, find jugs with very toxic, flammable chemicals sitting around, with tubes and contraptions rigged up to make the stuff. And then I'll get my headache right after we go inside--the meth headache."

There are dozens of ways to make methamphetamine, but the most popular recipes have three factors in common:

* Poisonous, unstable, extremely flammable ingredients.
* Vapors that escape during the cooking process.
* Five or six pounds of toxic waste for every pound of methamphetamine cooked.

Lawmen like Minson know how to deal with meth users and cooks--find them, read them their rights, take them to jail. But he and other front-line officers admit they are just starting to realize that the drug presents significant but little-known dangers to themselves and other non-users:

* People move into homes or motel rooms unaware that meth once was cooked there, and of lingering toxic residues that may pose severe health dangers.

* Though police and related personnel are spending more and more time amid the toxic stews associated with meth labs, they often don't protect themselves accordingly.

"We have to be careful and still do our job," Minson says. "This is a juggling process that we're still figuring out."

That process apparently includes confusion about when to wear a protective breathing mask. No one at the East Campbell lab dons a mask despite the array of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals around them. In fact, they don't even have masks on hand.

Actually, local cops have been fortunate--so far. No officers have been blown up in a meth lab. And, on a more subtle level, the meth headaches and scratchy throats disappear with time, the sinuses clear up, the achy feelings go away.

But the drug cops suspect they are deluding themselves.
"We do a good job of protecting ourselves as best we can from bullets," Minson says, "but we've got to do that when it comes to chemicals, too. I hate to say it, but it's just a matter of time before someone gets hurt because we're not paying close enough attention to the chemical part of all this."

The level of cooperation among authorities during meth-lab busts, including the one on East Campbell, seems admirable. But hazards linger, police and other sources agree, after law enforcement leaves the scene.

"We bust bad guys," explains DEA chief agent Duncan Lingle, who leads a statewide anti-meth task force, the nation's first of its kind. "Making sure the place is safe for occupation once we bust the bad guys is not our job."

It doesn't seem to be anyone's job.
The state of Arizona has no system to ensure a meth-lab site is decontaminated once police confiscate overt evidence. And while no studies have been published to gauge the long-term effects of exposure to chemicals involved in meth labs, it doesn't take an expert to draw common-sense conclusions.

"That shit can't be good to breathe in or be around," says Officer Strong. "It's got to mess you up really good."

Police stumble upon most meth labs like they did on East Campbell--after evictions, while responding to family fights--not from snitches or defendants eager to make deals.

Armed with a search warrant, a five-man narcotics team enters the apartment about 9:30 p.m. The detectives are experienced, and it shows in the careful manner in which each approaches the gathering of evidence.

A full-fledged meth lab is rigged up in a back bedroom, with the requisite chemicals in milk jugs, coffee cans and glass bottles. Sure enough, Minson's "meth" headache soon kicks in, though it's not a bad one.

The couple who once lived here have left behind more than a mass of chemicals, tubing, heaters, beakers and flasks. Their photographs hang in the living room and on the refrigerator. The portrait in the living room depicts a hale, well-dressed, middle-aged couple. The one on the refrigerator shows the pair more recently, haggard and vacant-eyed.

One detective notes the couple's deterioration and mutters, "Scarier than 'This is your brain on drugs.'"

The police computer reveals the couple have felony records for drug crimes.
A detective peruses paperwork on a desk in the apartment, including documents from Maricopa County's drug court, reminding the woman of a January 9 hearing. (A later check of the court docket indicates that she failed to show, and a commissioner issued a bench warrant for her arrest.)

In this instance, the police don't think it necessary to request assistance from the state Department of Public Safety's (DPS) meth-lab squad. That team wears protective breathing apparatus like that of firefighters, testing the air for chemicals as it enters a site.

But two chemists from DPS' crime lab are on hand. They take samples and photographs of 30 or 40 containers of chemicals, all of which may be used in methamphetamine production.

One of the chemists gets a chuckle from a hand-marked inscription on one jug filled with an ominous dark liquid.

"Don't drink!" it warns.
"As compared to the other bottles, I guess," he says drolly, to no one in particular.

The chemist opens another container, then waves a hand atop the lid to raise some fumes. He sticks his nose close to the opening, sniffs briefly, and says it's sodium hydroxide--a poisonous, corrosive chemical found in drain cleaner.

At the DEA's meth-lab school, they teach that such a practice may lead to dire consequences. (A California cop suffered a collapsed lung in a similar situation a few years ago.) But police admit it's the norm among crime-lab types and, at times, themselves.

"Anybody got a match?" a detective jokes, knowing the place could blow sky-high if someone lighted up.

Detective Tim Taylor takes a moment to compare his own safety awareness regarding meth with an earlier assignment, vice.

"We didn't think about it much when AIDS came to the forefront and we were dealing with hookers with open sores," says Taylor, another veteran of the drug wars. "Now, we're hearing about people getting sick at meth labs. But it takes a long time to sink in. With AIDS, we were lucky. With the labs, we're still learning."

The police learning curve, however, doesn't seem to have the same trajectory as area fire departments'.

Phoenix fire division chief Bob Khan groans when informed about the casual manner in which police routinely process meth labs. He points to his own department's policy, in place since 1990, concerning the use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). It says in part:

"The intent of the SCBA policy is to avoid any respiratory contact with products of combustion, superheated gases, toxic products or other hazardous contaminants. . . . SCBAs shall be used by all personnel operating in a contaminated atmosphere, [and] in an atmosphere which may suddenly become contaminated. This includes all personnel operating where toxic products are present, suspected to be present, or may be present."

Khan explains that the high incidence of cancer in firefighters (in Phoenix and nationwide) led to the policy.

"This is an element of the '90s that we've had to adapt to," Khan says. "We think it's best to err on the side of caution in all instances, and I do mean all. Some of those chemicals are just plain dangerous, and they're not stable."

Phoenix narcotics sergeant Kevin Pray and other officers convinced department higher-ups just last month to provide "chemical exposure" incident forms--something the Phoenix Fire Department has had in place for years.

As the police process the East Campbell site, it becomes obvious that it's going to be a long night.

About 10:30 p.m., two employees of Enviro Solve show up. The small, privately owned New Mexico firm--whose bread and butter is meth-lab cleanups--contracts with DEA to dispose of toxic chemicals found during raids in Arizona.

No one from DEA is at the apartment, but detective Taylor is certified by the feds as a meth-lab expert, so that covers it.

The detectives call it a night about 3:30 a.m. They've recovered about a pound of liquid methamphetamine, technically one step from the "rock" meth known as crystal. On the street, this amount of the drug could bring $4,000 or more.

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.

Most meth cooks aren't environmentally responsible, to put it mildly. Many simply wash toxic liquid used in cooking meth down a handy drain.

That isn't as dire as it sounds, says Dale Anderson, the manager of DEQ's Emergency Response Team: "There's no real problem with washing [chemicals] down drains, believe it or not."

Anderson says the most dangerous time for anyone who comes into contact with a meth lab is during the actual cooking: ". . . If they're not doing what you'd see in a real chemistry lab, then you've got a severely dangerous situation, with fire hazards and volatile chemicals. But the people most at danger are the people in the labs themselves, by far."

He continues, "By the time the fumes get to neighbors, they've dissipated beyond the point of toxicity. If they can smell it, they may be at risk, yes, in a case of long-term exposure. But hopefully, most people who smell a meth lab call the police."

That sounds reassuring. But little of substance has been published about chemical dangers posed by the burgeoning meth-lab crisis. A noteworthy effort is Ron McDonald's 1995 thesis for Ottawa University, titled Community Environmental and Public Safety Hazards Created by Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratories.

The 142-page report contains the prescient passage:
"Today, clandestine methamphetamine laboratories are proliferating like the moonshine stills of the Prohibition Era. . . . As these illicit entrepreneurs increase in numbers, so will environmental damage from their clandestine labs. . . . As individual addicts begin to cook up their own batches of methamphetamine, these toxic wastes will be present throughout our city, causing harm to citizens who are exposed to them."

McDonald quotes Bob Nieman, operations manager of Phoenix-based Chemical Waste Management. Nieman--whose firm then contracted to dispose of meth-lab chemicals in Arizona and New Mexico (and still does in Nevada and eastern California)--spoke about the proper way to decontaminate a site.

At the time, Nieman recommended:
* Remove and destroy all "surface materials"--furniture, rugs, drapes, etc.--that have been in proximity with meth-lab chemicals.

* Floors, walls and ceilings should be pressure-washed with a powerful detergent, then coated with cover-up chemicals.

* "Bake" the toxic chemicals out of the walls before reopening a place for occupancy.

Nieman tells New Times that before meth labs began to proliferate, cleanup was much more thorough than it is now.

One reason efforts have flagged is the sheer numbers of labs being busted. Another may be the cost.

DEA stats indicate that, in fiscal 1996--the most recent year in which numbers are available--the agency spent $605,000 to clean up meth labs in Arizona. In fiscal 1995, DEA spent $218,000. The feds say the average cost of a cleanup is about $4,400. Prorating that figure, it likely cost taxpayers more than $1 million in fiscal 1997 to tidy up Arizona's busted meth labs.

"We'd tear down parts of the walls, rip up the carpeting, take out all the contaminated furniture, that sort of thing," Nieman recalls of years past. "Sometimes, it was probably overkill, sometimes it was clearly necessary. . . . Some of these places should have been torched, in my opinion."

Nieman recalls several meth-lab busts at Valley hotels and motels, which raises another untold specter of the meth-lab story. The DEA's Duncan Lingle praises the Mesa Police Department for having one of the nation's most proactive education programs for hotel/motel managers.

Hotel owners and managers travel to Mesa from around the nation, he says, to be educated on how to detect meth labs and related subjects. On January 20, Lingle and Mesa detective Jeff Richter--known as an expert in the field--were scheduled to address, for the first time, hotel operators from Mexico.

"What we've found," Lingle says, "is once the cooks identify a hotel and start cooking at it, then they keep going back to that same hotel. Word spreads, and that hotel is marked. Of course, we're not talking about your Embassy Suites here."

Lingle suggests there may be danger even to patrons who stay in a room next to one in which meth has been cooking: "These chemicals permeate the walls. It's a bad deal."

Police haven't yet found the couple whose apartment on East Campbell served as a clandestine methamphetamine laboratory. A detective says the woman last week filed a missing-persons report concerning her boyfriend.

The apartment isn't for rent yet. But it will be soon.

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: prubin@newtimes.com

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com

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