Toxic Shock

Starting a meth lab takes little skill or cash. The cleanup is another story.

After an initial assessment of the lab and the type of dangers it might present, the entry team can often downgrade to Level C, which requires the same suit but ditches the thirty-pound tank for a much trimmer air-purifying respirator. The APR can provide up to ten hours of clean air, but the body heat that accumulates inside the suit -- imagine wearing an impermeable polyester leisure suit inside a plastic bag -- will drive you to the sidelines long before that.

"There are two degrees of comfort with the suits: hot and very hot," says haz-mat leader Grove. "I've seen people pour water out of their boots from perspiration. It's very physically demanding and manpower-intense. The Level A is even worse, because it's effectively inflating the whole time. You walk out like the Michelin Man."

North Metro has backup teams standing by to rescue the entry teams in the event of a dire complication, and paramedics who check the emerging moon-suited personnel at regular intervals for high blood pressure and signs of dehydration. "Trust me," says Moriarty, "if we didn't do that, my guys would be going in until they fell over in there."

Speed cleaning: North Metro Drug Task Force 
commander Lori Moriarty mandated chemical suits for 
meth-lab raiders.
Mark Manger
Speed cleaning: North Metro Drug Task Force commander Lori Moriarty mandated chemical suits for meth-lab raiders.
Broomfield building official Tom Meyers oversees the 
decontamination of meth-tainted property.
Mark Manger
Broomfield building official Tom Meyers oversees the decontamination of meth-tainted property.

When she first mandated the use of the suits three years ago, not everyone was wild about the idea. "Some officers just don't want to wear the gear," she says. "They don't recognize the risk of long-term chronic exposure. They're here and now, and some of them wanted to go back to busting kilos of cocaine. That was more fun than suiting up for a lab. But it was time for all of us to recognize the hazards."

Goin says the suits offer a reasonable tradeoff: He'd rather face the prospect of heat stress than a snootful of colorless phosphine gas any day. "Wearing the suit and gear is very trying on you," he says. "But the job has changed. This is the way we do things."

In many cases, the people who actually report the labs don't have the option of being suited up. No one has figured out how to protect the patrol officer answering a domestic-violence call, say, or a social worker or parole officer who might come across a meth operation -- other than to urge them to get the hell out. "We're not inhaling anything, but the first guy to discover it probably is," Grove says. "That's a huge concern."

The suspects living on the premises pose a different kind of problem. Even if they appear healthy, they could be saturated with chemicals themselves, enough to contaminate patrol cars and jails. So it's now standard procedure to treat them as survivors of a toxic event: Make them strip and shower in a makeshift tent outside, then dress in a paper jail suit. "We've had some people with quite evil criminal histories who have cooperated," Goin says. "There was one female who decided to fight us. It turned out she had some meth hidden in her bra."

Even with all the precautions, Goin wonders about the long-term health effects of gathering evidence in one toxic crime scene after another. The suits now come with monitors for the most obvious dangers, but what about by-products of the lab process that haven't even been identified yet? Cops trade stories all the time about meth cooks who died under mysterious circumstances -- not an overdose, maybe just exposure -- and about retired DEA agents who seem to be succumbing to the ill effects of busting labs for a decade or two.

Still, no one disputes that the suits and all they entail have made the meth warriors' campaign much safer -- and more taxing. Backup teams, decon tents, training exercises, pressure-testing the suits and so on adds hours and dollars to the cost of each raid. The battle is tapping into fire department and haz-mat resources as well as demanding greater exertions from police agencies. And, as Moriarty suggests, the time-consuming process may be a primary reason that the number of lab raids appears to be leveling off. Who has the leisure or personnel to go after labs that may be more cleverly hidden when you're already operating at Level B most of the time?

"I don't think we've stopped them, by any means," says Goin. "All we've done is make them change their ways a little bit."

Linda Aquino didn't have any qualms about the family that contacted her about renting her house in Broomfield two summers ago. The house was in an older neighborhood favored by seniors, several of whom had lived there since the 1950s, and her new tenants seemed to fit right in: a middle-aged couple, fiftyish, with a couple of daughters and one grandchild. The couple both had jobs and a stable rental history, having lived in their previous residence for several years.

In the months that followed, Aquino drove by the house frequently. She never saw any sign of trouble. "The house was always nice and neat," she says. "The rent was on time. The neighbors all know me; they would have called if there was a problem."

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