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Toxic Shock

Randy Goin remembers his first visit to a methamphetamine lab six years ago. It was the beginning of a long and disturbing chemistry lesson. A Thornton narcotics detective assigned to the North Metro Drug Task Force, Goin didn't know quite what to expect. He'd heard the horror stories about crazed...
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Randy Goin remembers his first visit to a methamphetamine lab six years ago. It was the beginning of a long and disturbing chemistry lesson.

A Thornton narcotics detective assigned to the North Metro Drug Task Force, Goin didn't know quite what to expect. He'd heard the horror stories about crazed meth-cooks and their paranoia, guns and booby traps. He knew something about the ingredients they use, a vile brew of cold pills, household solvents and acids, iodine, phosphorous, ammonia -- which, if inexpertly combined, can produce flash fires, deadly gases and toxic spills. But all of his training couldn't prepare him for his first lab bust.

The target was an old barn on a 25-acre property in rural Adams County. Goin's team found a fully automatic machine gun but no cook in progress; to their relief, the chemicals and glassware appeared to be neatly stored. What caught Goin's attention, though, was the sink that the lab operator had used to dump his waste chemicals.

The sink wasn't connected to the sewer system, and the waste simply oozed from a pipe outside -- near a well pump and a trampoline where kids played. It was easy to trace the discharge as it trickled down a hill to a catch-pond. All you had to do was follow the ever-widening kill path in its wake, a swath of bare ground where the surrounding weeds just stopped.

"Nothing would grow there," Goin recalls. "Nothing."

The scene was his first intimation that he was dealing with something beyond the grasp of conventional law enforcement. What kind of dipstick could so casually poison the land around him -- and possibly his children and his own water supply in the bargain?

Over the next three years, North Metro began to encounter meth labs with alarming frequency. The task force was soon hitting a couple a month, then one or two a week -- labs in apartments, motel bathrooms, cars. Goin was in on 35 or 40 of those busts. In almost every case, his protective gear consisted of a pair of latex gloves.

Goin saw pristine apartments turned into iodine-stained dumps, a once-tidy mobile home scarred by unreported fires. He saw kids scavenging for whatever food they could find after their parents had been passed out for days.

"It's all about the meth," he says. "Kids get ignored, the property falls apart. Meth becomes their whole world."

At first, few people -- aside from the haz-mat teams that customarily made the initial entry -- gave much thought to the dizzying vapors that permeated the labs. Even after the joint had been aired out, you could smell the chemicals and sometimes taste them -- a sweet yet acrid smell, not unlike the odor of a hardware store stacked high with pesticides and fertilizer. Goin emerged lightheaded a couple of times. Other team members complained of headaches that lasted for days.

Goin saw one co-worker chase down a suspect and cuff him bare-handed. The cook's clothing was saturated with chemicals; a few minutes later, the skin on the officer's palms started blistering.

In time, Goin thought less about what the labs were doing to the weeds in Adams County. He began to worry about what they were doing to him.

Compared with the meth explosion in states such as California and Arizona, Colorado's problem is still relatively modest. But the rise of mom-and-pop labs across the region is changing the terms of engagement for drug warriors and reshaping health officials' notions of what constitutes a hazardous-waste site. And property owners and taxpayers are getting stuck with the bill.

Amphetamine-related stimulants have been part of the pharmacopia for decades, of course, from Hitler's pick-me-up injections to the pep pills and "diet aids" marketed to American consumers a generation ago. From the 1960s until well into the 1980s, the illegal speed trade was dominated by motorcycle gangs, who employed rogue chemists to manufacture the "P2P" version of meth, using phenyl-2-propanone, methylamine, ether and a host of other volatile ingredients. Batches of P2P were usually concocted in remote rural areas, since the process took days and exuded a stench detectable for blocks.

But all of that changed in the 1990s, as simpler (but not always safer) recipes for homemade meth began to circulate on the Internet. Today's cooks use a variety of methods to strip one molecule from the magic ingredient in over-the-counter cold tablets and produce meth in a matter of hours, in a process known as ephedrine reduction. One popular approach involves red phosphorus, iodine, hydriodic acid and sodium hydroxide; another calls for ammonia, muriatic acid, naphtha, methanol and Freon.

Since virtually all of the ingredients can be found at the local strip mall -- in household products such as lye, matchbooks, drain cleaner and swimming-pool chemicals -- the enterprising tweaker no longer has to depend on bikers or Mexican superlabs for his source of supply. He can set up shop in his closet, add as many boxes of cold pills as he and his pals can boost, and get cooking.

When cops in California began stumbling on small-scale labs a decade ago, they treated them as an anomaly rather than the advance guard of what would become a wide-ranging infestation. That was a mistake, says Thornton lieutenant Lori Moriarty, commander of the North Metro task force.

"Why did we ever think this would go away?" she asks. "You don't need to go to the border. You walk to your corner store, you steal everything you need to manufacture it off the shelves, and you go home and cook it. When it's that easy, why would it go away?"

Since taking command of the task force three years ago, Moriarty has become one of the most vocal anti-meth warriors in the state, inveighing against the labs and the hazards they present. She's pushed for tighter controls on the supplies used to make meth, stricter cleanup standards and tougher penalties for cooks who put children at risk of chemical contamination. Prompted by Goin and others, she's also required supervisors as well as field officers to undergo training on exposure issues and the use of protective equipment; cumbersome chemical suits and respirators are now standard gear for the task force on every lab entry.

"What scares me the most are the unknowns," Moriarty says. "As a commander, I want to know twenty years from now that none of my guys are dying of cancer or liver disease because I did a terrible job of protecting them."

While other police departments have adopted similar measures, North Metro has a reputation for being exceptionally safety-minded. They've had plenty of opportunities to use their training; the task force, which investigates drug cases in eight north-metro-area jurisdictions, has been a leader in uncovering labs over the past six years, outpacing even Denver. Statewide, the number of labs raided soared during that period: 31 in 1998, 150 in 1999, 264 in 2000, 452 in 2001.

More recent figures, though, show the lab busts leveling off. In 2002, law-enforcement officials across Colorado shut down just sixteen more labs than they had the year before; right now, agencies in the Denver area are finding about the same number of labs, or fewer, than they did last year (although a surge of raids in Colorado Springs may yet produce another record year). But Moriarty and her colleagues say the numbers only show that resources are being "maxed out" by the never-ending battle.

"A dropoff today means absolutely nothing," says Jim Gerhardt, a former member of North Metro who now serves as the clandestine-lab coordinator for the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal task force. "It could skyrocket tomorrow. I guarantee you that every task force has more intelligence about labs than the physical ability to go after them."

Using the kind of hyperbolic math that is frequently employed in reports on the drug war, federal officials have estimated that only one in ten meth labs is ever detected. Despite the unprovable nature of such an assertion, the prospect of thousands of labs operating in Colorado has spurred legislators to take action, enacting a series of new laws designed to give cops more muscle in the fight. One measure allows investigators to file child-abuse charges against parents who expose their children to lab operations. Another makes it easier to arrest suspected operators who may not actually have cooked any meth, based simply on the presence of "precursor" ingredients, lab equipment and the intent to manufacture.

The escalating war on meth has also received prominent play in the local media, which has been eager to educate the public on the dangers of "death bags" -- trash bags or plastic containers that contain deadly vapors, such as phosphine gas, produced during the cook -- and other atrocities. Conveniently, on the same day that the Colorado Senate approved the drug-endangered-children bill last March, North Metro discovered a meth lab in an Adams County home, arrested two adults and took an eight-year-old girl into protective custody. Lab busts involving children tend to draw plenty of ink and cameras.

Despite the scary statistics and the hype, not everyone has joined the bandwagon. Owners of rental properties and apartments question the current push for onerous cleanup standards and have opposed efforts to require disclosure of past meth-lab activity if a property is put up for sale. Police believe that motel operators aren't reporting every suspected meth lab on their premises, out of fear of crushing cleanup costs and lost revenues -- even though such tactics could result in lawsuits from subsequent customers who may unwittingly spend their vacation in a still-toxic den. Even some of the meth warriors on the front lines have begun to question the kinds of burdens associated with aggressive enforcement and long-term cleanup costs.

"We are probably assuming a lot more liability and responsibility than we need to, quite frankly," says Glenn Grove, team coordinator for the Adams and Jefferson County Hazardous Response Authority. "If this is a problem that society recognizes, it's going to come with a bill."

A former Jeffco sheriff's deputy and bomb expert who now spends all his time on haz-mat issues, Grove recognizes that meth labs are dangerous environments, but he is wary of classifying them as hazardous-waste dumps. He praises Moriarty and other police commanders for taking steps to protect officers who have to work in such places; at the same time, he also sees mounting social costs and strained budgets arising from the new laws and strict cleanup policies.

"You can go down to Wal-Mart and buy a box of cold pills, a gallon of Coleman fuel, a couple of boxes of wooden matches, and maybe they have a case of de-icer on sale," Grove notes. "Put that stuff in a bag and put it in your closet, and you now have a drug lab in your house. The only thing missing is intent. If the police come into your house and find it, your house could be vacated and boarded up until somebody does some monitoring to determine how much contamination is in your walls, your carpet, your furniture. And if you have kids in that same house, that's a felony in itself.

"The cause is noble, but do you really want to go down this path? And what if you're just renting? What happens to the homeowner or the motel owner who has their place shut up? What are acceptable levels of contamination? What if you take a perfectly good piece of residential property and deem it to be a toxic waste site?"

When it comes to meth labs, the unknowns are huge. No one knows the true scope of the health problems faced by police or fire workers who raid the labs (or kids who play in them), because the data isn't in yet. Standards for cleanup vary from state to state -- and, in Colorado, from one jurisdiction to the next -- because the risks associated with residual meth contamination are still under study. Given an absence of conclusive evidence on the long-term picture, Moriarty contends that it's best to be cautious.

"You can say these are household chemicals, but once they're mixed, they're no longer harmless," she says. "We're doing a disservice to the citizens in our state if we don't treat every lab as a serious situation."

Denver detective Marty Vanover opened a Pandora's box while rummaging through the remnants of a dormant meth lab three years ago. It was an ordinary shoebox filled with crumpled newspaper.

The newspaper was wrapped around something, but Vanover didn't need to look further. As soon as he saw the paper, stained a deep, reddish purple, he shut the lid and ordered an evacuation. Iodine in crystal form sublimes quickly when exposed to the air; the Einstein who ran this particular operation must have busted the container it came in and stuffed the crystal into the shoebox for later use.

"I knew it was iodine," Vanover recalls. "But I'd already opened the box."

Vanover emerged from the house with a runny nose. He soon developed breathing troubles and landed in intensive care two weeks later; he spent five days there, recovering from pneumonia. A month after that, he was back in another lab.

"Most people in narcotics don't want anything to do with meth labs," he says. "You have to want to go in. The way I look at it, you're doing something important to protect your community."

Now assigned to District One, Vanover no longer tackles labs. But the chances that any of his successors will suffer a similar inhalation exposure have been greatly reduced by the protective equipment and procedures that law-enforcement agencies have since adopted for lab searches. The gear is unwieldy, costly and sometimes debilitating, but it works.

Aside from the possibility of explosions, fires and the occasional booby trap, respiratory damage is the greatest health risk posed by the labs. The toxic vapors produced by the manufacturing process are rarely vented properly and permeate walls, carpets and furniture. Add to that the sloppiness of the average addled meth cook, the frequent splashes and spills, the shabby garage-sale glassware used, and improper storage of unlabeled ingredients, residues and by-products -- in leaky jars, cat-litter jugs and shoeboxes -- and you've got an uncontrolled experiment in atmospheric mutation.

"Any moron can make meth," says Vanover, who's cooked batches under strict quality controls in a DEA lab. "It takes a chemist to make it safely."

Dealing with the vapors has transformed cops into hazardous-materials workers, decked out in shiny suits and impermeable masks. The most extreme protection is known as Level A -- a fully encapsulated, solvent-resistant suit with a Teflon visor, an oxygen tank, self-contained booties and a vapor-sealed zipper. Depending on the circumstances, a Level A response might require up to four pairs of gloves and a silver flame-retardant finish; the experience is not unlike walking at the bottom of a swimming pool, trying to pick up pennies with thick mittens and hissing like Darth Vader. The suits cost between $800 and $1,300 -- or thousands more for the heavier, Robbie-the-Robot models used in major haz-mat emergencies -- and are warrantied for very limited use.

Fortunately, Level A suits are rarely needed in meth labs. They're too bulky for close work in cluttered, trash-strewn apartments and basements (some meth cooks make the pre-makeover slobs on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy seem like obsessive-compulsive neatniks). Standard gear for the labs is a Level B ensemble, a much lighter plastic suit with a self-contained breathing apparatus, a mask hooked up to a tank that offers about an hour's worth of air. The suit costs as little as $12; the mask, around $170; the tank apparatus, along with communication devices, special monitors for phosphine gas and other vapors, and other gear, $3,000 to $5,000; the peace of mind, priceless.

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."

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."

She finally did get a call in July 2002. The police were at her house, tearing the place apart. Her grandparent tenants were charged with operating a meth lab. According to the police, Gramps was doing the cooking, and the oldest daughter and a boyfriend had been shoplifting cold pills.

Aquino was stunned, shocked -- poleaxed was what she was, especially when she found out what it was going to cost to get her property back in rentable condition. "I thought I could go in and clean it up myself," she says. "It was made very clear to me that that wasn't going to happen."

When a lab is raided, a private contractor is summoned to dispose of the seized chemicals and equipment. The service is paid for through a federal grant administered by the DEA; last year the feds paid $665,000 for meth-lab cleanups in Colorado, up from $485,000 in 2001. But those funds only cover the removal of the lab itself; the mess that's left behind, the chemicals soaked into carpets and drywall, are the property owner's problem.

Currently, there are no mandatory state standards for cleaning up the labs. Local governments can set their own criteria, imposing the authority they have through nuisance ordinances or other laws to require a certain level of decontamination. In Broomfield, cleanups are the province of the building department, which treats the problem as a housing-code issue.

If anyone had told Broomfield plans analyst Tom Meyers two years ago that he'd be overseeing meth-lab rehabs, "I would have laughed at the idea," he says. But in the past year, his department has supervised six cleanups, ranging in cost from $5,000 to nearly $30,000.

"Every one's a little bit different," Meyers says. "The contamination spread is dependent on two things. One, how long they've been operating in the house: The longer they're there, the more likely they are to move the apparatus around. Two, whether they have a forced-air ventilation system. Cooking near a return-air intake will distribute the contamination throughout the house."

The contaminated properties Meyers has seen range from a new house in Broomfield's upscale Broadland neighborhood to a mobile home scarcely worth the cost of cleaning. ("The owner just hauled it to a landfill," he says.) In several cases, the cook was an adult male living in his parents' house; the parents had to pay for the cleanup while Junior went to jail.

Meyers requires the owners to hire licensed, specially trained remediation firms, which determine the most effective way to clean the house. Generally, that involves airing out the property; removing stained sinks, surfaces, carpets and wallpaper; washing down floors, walls and ceilings; and encapsulating finishes, using paint, epoxy and other sealants to form a barrier against residual contamination. Samples are then tested by an independent lab to see if the cleanup meets acceptable standards for meth residue.

Aquino's house was Meyers's first meth lab. The house sat vacant for six months; Aquino says there were many delays involved in obtaining the city's approval for contractors, test results and procedures. The actual cleanup took only a few days but cost $14,000. Repairing the damage from the raid itself -- busted doors, ripped insulation, damage to the floors from garbage that sat around for weeks while Aquino was barred from entering the house -- cost another $8,000.

Her insurance wouldn't pay for the decontamination. She spent thousands of dollars on attorneys' fees to evict her tenants and seize what property they left behind, but most of it was too contaminated to be of value. "I did get a civil judgment against them, but I won't see a dime of it," she says. "The courts won't enforce it. If they have a job, you can go after them, but I can't find the girls now, and the parents are going to trial next month. This has been devastating for me."

Aquino is now renting her house again. Although the place has been fully cleaned, the stigma remains; she can only attract tenants by charging several hundred dollars less a month than she did before the raid. "When people move in, the neighbors run over and tell them the exciting news about the house," she says. "People hear 'meth lab' and they think there will be gangsters coming by."

Looking back, she doesn't know what she could have done differently; perhaps she could have obtained a special rider on her insurance policy dealing with chemical contamination, but would it hold up in a meth case? "People would be shocked if they knew how vulnerable they are," she says.

Aquino and property owners like her aren't the only ones suffering collateral damage from the labs. Neighbors trying to guard their property values and unwitting tenants who move into a poorly rehabbed former lab have taken hits, too. Gerhardt of Rocky Mountain HIDTA says he knows of at least three lawsuits so far from people who claim to have fallen ill after occupying former meth dens; they're suing the property owners for damages.

One of those suits was filed by Jean Michael, who moved into a townhouse in Estes Park because she hoped the fresh mountain air would help alleviate her asthma. The landlord assured her that the stains in the carpet were from tenants who smoked cigarettes. After Michael started having trouble breathing, she learned that her new home had previously been raided for meth.

"We allege that the landlord failed to disclose a latent, dangerous defect in the property," says Cathy Klein, Michael's lawyer. "If he didn't make that misrepresentation, we may not be here with this lawsuit. There's nothing in the law that requires him to disclose it was a meth lab."

Other problems are posed by cleanup procedures at motels, which are favored by meth cooks on the go.

"Some motel chains are good about having nationwide contractors to take care of this, at a cost of $5,000 or $10,000 a room," says Goin. "But how many labs get found that don't appear that bad and are just cleaned up by local maintenance, because if they call the police the place is going to get condemned? I can't prove it happens, but it's logical that some of that is going on."

A bill that would have added more teeth to cleanup enforcement died in the state legislature last spring. Although the bill wouldn't have required disclosure of prior meth-lab activity to prospective renters or buyers, property owners are understandably wary of the economic costs involved in tougher standards. "The biggest opposition we had was from the apartment owners' association," says Gerhardt. "Some of our legislators who own rental property joined in."

North Metro posts on its Web site ( the address of every meth lab raided by the task force. Gerhardt believes a statewide registry is needed, along with legal disclosures in property transactions. "We all should have the right to move into a building and not get trace amounts of an illegal substance in our system," he says.

This summer, the Colorado Department of Public Health released a "guidance document" for lab cleanups. Although the guidelines are voluntary, officials hope the standards and procedures it contains will help produce a more uniform approach to the problem statewide. Yet the document notes that its cleanup standard -- a widely adopted threshold for meth residue of .5 micrograms per square foot -- is not health-based. It merely reflects what is a readily achievable level of decontamination: "Currently, there is not sufficient information available regarding the effects of long-term exposure to low concentrations of meth to adequately evaluate chronic minimum risk levels."

Moriarty says she knows of at least one case where retesting of a former lab site a year after it had supposedly been "cleaned" yielded results as high as 1,600 micrograms. To learn more about how the contamination spreads and potential health risks, her task force is now working with National Jewish Medical and Research Center to study the effects of a controlled cook at an old farmhouse in Adams County. With emergency personnel standing by, researchers in Level B suits recently cooked batches of the drug in the sealed house and took various readings afterward.

Although full results of the study won't be available until this fall, Moriarty says the early returns are nothing to sneeze at. "We did a small cook, and the meth residue was everywhere," she says. "I can't imagine anyone living in these homes and not being contaminated."

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