Busts are as risky as bullets in vast Utah crime epidemic;
Meth Mania Creates New Risks for Police
BY KELLY KENNEDY THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
While questioning a forgery suspect living in a duplex, South Salt Lake Det. Dave Browning
suddenly felt dizzy.
"The other officers said I was starting to list to one side," he said.
Fresh air didn't help. He began vomiting and was rushed to the hospital. Later, police
discovered a methamphetamine lab in the other unit of the duplex. Fumes from the lab, combined
with smoke from an officer's cigarette, had wafted to Browning.
"The doctor said my small airways were constricted," Browning said.
It is the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's task to investigate illegal labs. But street cops and
detectives usually happen upon most labs, said Jeff Payne, a DEA detective who specializes in
Labs pose risks of violence, chemical toxins and long-term illness for officers across the nation
and in Utah, where meth has reached epidemic proportions.
"We have the largest amount of meth labs per capita in the nation," Payne said. "Back in '91,
'92 if you got a lab, that was something else. Now, we're online for 250 to 300 this year."
Said West Valley Police Lt. Charles Illsley: "Meth is the very worst crime scene we've
Violent Encounters: Meth chemists, or "cooks," are violent because virtually all use their own
product. Typically, addicts can go without sleep for up to 15 days -- making them delusional,
volatile and irrational. Cooks have attacked lab invaders with scissors, chain saws and fire. Illsley
said at least 40 percent booby-trap their labs with explosives and nerve agents.
"These folks are biohazards in and of themselves," Illsley said. "They have open sores, chemical
burns, higher incidences of HIV, TB and hepatitis. They even sweat the by-products of these
Addicts can hide their needles in creative places, so jailers doing searches worry about being
poked. On the streets, officers making routine stops or calls can be exposed to an array of toxic
chemicals. Labs even pop up in cars.
"Meth labs in the trunk are a very popular reason for high-speed chases," Illsley said. "That
endangers the officer and civilians."
And damage can affect officers' own families.
"There are lots of examples of foot pursuits where you run right through the lab," Illsley said.
"Then, the cop's kids are contaminated with chemicals daddy dragged in from the drug lab. We
used to be able to say, `I'm not in narcs anymore.' Now, everyone encounters it on a daily basis."
Special Precautions: Special suits and ventilators don't eliminate all dangers.
For instance, DEA agents use flashlights in assessing labs so that sparks are minimized around
explosive chemicals. Agents breathe through Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus masks and
wear yellow plastic Tyvex clothes -- dubbed banana suits.
"But all of that stuff is cumbersome, and we have to worry about heat exhaustion and fatigue,"
Payne said. "So we switch to lighter gear when we have to move."
That includes fire-resistant suits and military-style gas masks fitted with special filters.
"But the masks fog in the winter, are hot in the summer, and the bad guys can't understand us
when we yell, `Police!' " he said. "So we go in without them, secure it, and get out. Then we
worry about the suits."
As backup, one person suits up and waits outside to help if officers are overcome by toxic
"It's a double-edged sword for SWAT," West Valley police Lt. Illsley agreed. "They have to
move quickly, yet [protective gear] will hinder their progress. But they're in and out -- they're the
least exposed. It's the uniforms [officers] investigating a case that I worry about."
Amateur Scientists: Worse, criminal meth cooks are untrained, or as Illsley puts it: "These
guys are not gifted when it comes to organic chemistry."
Cooks begin by mixing ephedrine, hydriatic acid and red phosphorus, then heating the mixture.
"Red phosphorous is toxic, highly flammable and if overheated, it will catch on fire or explode,"
Payne said. "It can become phosphane gas, which was used in World War I as a nerve agent."
Next, they strain the mixture to remove the red phosphorous.
When one officer walked through a lab house, there was so much red phosphorous in the
carpet that sparks could be seen coming from his boots.
"Could you imagine if a SWAT team went through there?" Payne said. "The whole place would
have gone up."
Lye is added to the mixture. (Lye can cause serious skin burns or damage airways.) Everything
is thrown into a drum, usually 55-gallons, and Freon is added to force the meth to the bottom of
the container. The mixture is drained and hydrogen chloride gas is added to convert meth oil into
"They distill these chemicals to get the meth out," Payne said. "But they ventilate the tanks to let
out pressure, which also lets toxins into the air."
The amount of fumes and the potential for an explosion differ with each illegal lab. Some cooks
don't follow a recipe -- they just toss in chemicals until the mix looks right. Payne has seen cooks
use antifreeze, highly explosive ether and alcohol, along with drain cleaner and lye.
Even trained chemists can have problems. At what was to be a simple demonstration during a
conference in Kansas, a chemist inadvertently blew up a glass container.
"That was a chemist," Payne said. "Most of these meth cooks haven't even graduated from high
Particles and gases can contaminate entire rooms, often seeping into basements, ventilation
systems and other apartments.
Health Effects: Meth causes nausea, dizziness and headaches, said Payne. "But it's really never
been studied. We don't know the long-term effects."
He knows of officers who sat on red-phosphorous-covered furniture, then tracked the
chemicals to their own homes. One officer stepped into a liquid substance, and not realizing the
danger, wore his boots every day. He noticed that he felt sick at work and at home. In civilian
shoes, he felt fine. "You have to wonder: `Headache? Where's it from?' " said Payne. "It's hard to
say unless it gets worse and you track it back to exposure."
Illsley said he will never forget Dec. 21, 1982 -- the day he first encountered a lab.
"We'd go outside, get some fresh air, then go back in," he said. "In the '70s and '80s, there was
a whole generation of officers who investigated clandestine labs without any protection."
Two years ago, Portland, Ore., approved disability claims from several officers who developed
rare forms of cancer. Three had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, another had emphysema and a fifth
officer bone marrow cancer, the Law Enforcement News reported.
"There are guys who worked it for 20 years, retired, and just now are starting to show ill
effects," Illsley said. "But it's hard to link it back to the labs. There are so many chemicals used in
so many ways, it would be hard to trace."
Salt Lake police Sgt. Craig Gleason remembers seeing his first lab in a hotel room, three years
"We didn't know exactly what to do," he said. "Then I remember the DEA guys taking our
clothes and washing our shoes after they found out we went in."
Now, he tells officers to stay back.
"As a patrol supervisor, I had two guys find a lab in a car," he said. "When I got there, they
were sitting on the side of the curb disoriented. They had to be taken to the hospital."
The DEA offers classes, expertise and backup. Web sites can help too. One, www.meth.com,
discusses meth addicts; www.lifeormeth.org features help links; and www.stopdrugs.org shows
"We haven't had any police officers die from this yet in Utah," Illsley said. "The Lord watches
out for us, but we still need to look out for ourselves."
* Copyright 1990-2000, The Salt Lake Tribune