Herald JournalHerald Journal, May 31, 2004

A growing rural hazard: careless, dangerous meth lab byproducts

By Lynda Jensen, Liz Hellmann, and Jenna Erickson

A man north of Howard Lake found what he thought was a brand new propane tank in the woods near Middleville Township.

He took it home with him and opened the valve. It exploded into his face.

The tank was used in a meth lab for holding anhydrous ammonia, and since propane tanks aren’t meant to hold anhydrous ammonies

Meth labs are well known for being mobile – and it appears that rural areas are more suited for the dirty work, since the labs give off a pungent odor and require some degree of privacy to operate.

Meth lab operators are becoming more well known for being extremely careless and uncaring where their toxic byproducts land as they move about, Howell said.

“They’ll just toss things out the window as they drive along,” she commented.

The result is average citizens who find the discarded deadly materials – hunters in the woods, residents walking by construction sites, or even people who left their cabin or camper unattended in Wright County, returning to find their property is converted into a toxic waste dump.

In recent years, the task force has made numerous arrests inside Wright County, within every city that exists there (see boxed area). Cokato in particular keeps a relatively high record of meth arrests, with six in 2004, 15 in 2003, and 19 in 2002.

The arrests include meth labs and lab waste in the following sample of cases:

• While walking in a county park in Middleville Township during June last year, a citizen found a 20 lb. tank with blue corrosion around the valve. Blue corrosion is a signature of meth waste, Howell said.

The citizen took the tank home, and ended up going to the hospital when he opened the valve, and inhaled anhydrous ammonia.

• A meth lab was found in a pole shed near Clearwater Township January 2003. A burn pit and items were found near the tailer, showing meth was made there previously.

• A vehicle search found a meth lab in June 2003 in Marysville Township. Police located it upon the attempt of theft for anhydrous ammonia.

• A Southside Township garage was found as a meth lab upon the follow up of theft of pseudoephedrine (cold medicine) pills.

• A citizen found meth lab items in a construction site in Howard Lake, March 2002.

• A meth lab was found in an outside shed in Monticello Township was found as a meth lab. Young children were found to be in danger related to this meth lab operator.

In fact, most law enforcement officials consider the clean up of meth labs as the “dangerous” work – not cornering and jailing the perpetrators.

The result is a serious health hazard for unknowing neighbors and children, who may touch or inhale corrosive, deadly materials discarded from meth labs.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that doesn’t have to do with meth,” Howell commented.

Surprisingly, the labs don’t look much like labs, Howell said. They actually look like a collection of ordinary household items, used for a darker purpose.

It only takes eight gallons of flammable solvent used for making meth to blow up a house, according to Southwest Metro Drug Task Force.

The typical meth lab contains two to three times that amount.

When meth is in the cooking process, the stench is incredible, like a mix between battery acid and rotten eggs, and can be smelled for miles if the cooking area is not tightly enclosed.

The careless regard for safety usually extends to children of the meth lab operator, or anyone associated with the lab, as well.

Child abuse is an intensive and more flagrant problem for meth users than other kinds of drug users, she said.

Another characteristic that makes meth different than other drugs such as cocaine – the recovery rate is only 5 percent, Howell said.

“People just don’t recover,” she said, noting that the brain simply can’t overcome damage that occurred once meth is used.

Meth – common in Minnesota

Meth use in Wright County has drastically increased in the past 10 years, and is the most commonly made drug in Minnesota labs.

Many rural and wooded areas provide easy access to products used to make meth, and relative seclusion to do it.

Meth is made mostly from everyday household ingredients such as pseudoephedrine (cold medications).

The meth lab technicians also put acetone, red devil lye, and anhydrous ammonia in the mixture.

When mixed and cooked together, these ingredients create a dangerous drug as well as potentially harmful chemical mixtures.

Left over hazardous materials may remain on household surfaces for months or even years after cooking is over.

Wright County and most other counties have a special way to deal with meth clean up.

In Wright County, once the lab is located, police go in and arrest the users.

Next, three people from the drug task force – dressed in hazardous materials suits – enter the location and take the materials from the lab to a hazardous waste facility.

It may take several days or weeks to clear a meth lab site.

In fact, for states that have severe meth production such as California, chemicals from meth sites contaminate water supplies, kill livestock, destroy forest areas, and render areas uninhabitable.

It is estimated that for every pound of meth produced, it leaves behind five to seven pounds of toxic waste.

Why meth?

Meth is becoming more popular because it is so easy to make. “People can get addicted from one use,” said Howell.

When meth is used, it ruins the individual’s mental and physical health.

It can be used in many ways. Meth can be injected, smoked, or inhaled. The rush of one hit is instantaneous, and can last from five to 30 minutes. One hit is a rush of adrenaline and dopamine being released.

This stimulates brain cells, enhancing mood and body movement.

After the rush comes the high, which can last between four to six hours.

A meth high gives the user a feeling of heightened awareness and activity, as well as a loss of appetite.

Once the high subsides, there is a binge period, lasting between three and 15 days.

During this time, the user begins compulsive acts.

Once the high is worn off, they enter the stage known as “tweaking.”

This is when no more dopamine is being released and the user becomes depressed, leading to the crash, which usually lasts between one and three days.

The following months put the user through withdrawals. They may experience symptoms like depression, anxiety, fatigue, paranoia, aggression, and intense cravings for meth.

Continuous use of the drug can lead to violent behavior, confusion, and insomnia.

The user may also exhibit psychotic behaviors such as auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances, delusions, and paranoia.These effects can lead the user to homicidal or suicidal thoughts.

Use of methamphetamine can cause brain damage that is detectable months after use of the drug.

Meth causes increased heart rate and blood pressure. This can cause irreversible damage to blood vessels in the brain, causing strokes. Meth use can also create respiratory problems, irregular heartbeat and extreme anorexia.Using meth can result in cardiovascular collapse and even death. Southern area

Meth appears to b growing drug of choice in Lester Prairie, New Germany, and Winsted, according to a dramatic increase in cases for 2003 – which presents a relatively new danger to public health: the careless toxicity of a meth lab.

“Meth investigations far out-weighed any other type of case that our agents investigated,” commented Sergeant Chris Dobratz of the Southwest Metro Drug Task Force.

“This was not the case as recent as 2001, where marijuana and meth investigations were equal,” he said.

This year also saw a rise in the number of meth labs seized by the task force – 13, he noted.

Three of the four drug arrests last year in Winsted were meth related, the fourth being cocaine, Dobratz said. Two out of four drug arrests in Lester Prairie were meth related.

Traveling toxic waste dumps

Meth labs bring a wide variety of dangers to any community, far beyond the private health threat to individual drug users.

The labs are very mobile – being found even in the trunks of cars – and deadly lab byproducts can be found anywhere – in the woods by hunters, or along the roadside in bags, carelessly tossed out of vehicles by lab operators.

The result is a growing public health threat and daily battle for law enforcement, Dobratz said.

Meth has been called the poor man’s cocaine. It has become the drug of choice in rural areas because it is relatively easy and inexpensive to manufacture and gives the user an extended high.

Meth can be manufactured from the trunks of cars or from fully operational labs built in homes.

Rural areas are ideal for meth manufacturing because there is a lot of space and privacy to work in.

“People are finding wooded areas in the country to cook,” Dobratz said. Drug dealers can set up a lab in local riverbeds, and concealed by the woods, can cook up an ounce of meth in six to eight hours.

“Meth is a dangerous drug because of all the chemicals that go into it,” Dobratz said.

These chemicals are not only harming the drug user, but also the environment and the people in the community.

Many of these chemicals are highly reactive, explosive, and corrosive. In 1999 a trailer containing a meth lab in Watertown blew up due to improper handling of these chemicals.

Of the 32 chemicals that can be used to make meth one-third are extremely toxic, according to the task force.

These chemicals are often times carelessly discarded in the riverbeds, or leak into the ground after being improperly disposed.

Children are at a higher risk because these chemicals are present in the ground where they play.

After playing in an area infected by these chemicals, children may put their hands in their mouth, ingesting some of the chemicals.

Children also have a higher rate of exposure pound for pound than adults because they are smaller and eat more food and drink more water in proportion to their bodies.

In other words, if a child comes in contact with a small amount of one of these chemicals it would have a larger affect on them, Dobratz said.

In fact, for states that have severe meth production such as California, chemicals from meth sites contaminate water supplies, kill livestock, destroy forest areas, and render areas uninhabitable.

It is estimated that for every pound of meth produced, it leaves behind five to seven pounds of toxic waste.

The drug task force is working to educate the public on the concerns of meth production in the area.

Meth is different from cocaine in that the recovery rate of users is incredibly low – about 5 percent, commented narcotics agent Becky Howell of the Wright County Sheriff’s Office.

“The reason meth is popular is because of the high it produces,” Dobratz said.

The cycle of meth consists of an initial rush, a high, a run or binge, and then a period called tweaking.

The initial rush occurs within five to 30 minutes of administering the drug and the user experiences a racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, metabolism, and pulse.

The high that follows four to 16 hours later makes the user feel more powerful and aggressive.

To keep this feeling as long as possible more meth is taken, which is referred to as binging.

Binging can persist for three to 15 days. Tweaking is used to describe the taking of more drugs to maintain the high for long periods of time.

During this time, the user may not sleep or eat, and may become violent or turn to other drugs such as alcohol.

Because meth is such an addictive drug, it can lead the user to take drastic measures to obtain more of the drug.

Some drug users commit burglaries and then pawn the stolen items to receive the quick cash needed to sustain their habit.

“We’re trying to reach as many groups as possible and get as much information out as we can,” Sgt. Dobratz said. In 2003 the task force gave five narcotics related presentations to roughly 125 people. It is working to educate family members and employers about the warning signs of meth use.

Penalties are also getter tougher for offenders. “Courts are getting stricter. Everyone is starting to realize just how dangerous this drug is,” Sgt. Dobratz said. Now there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 48 months in prison for anyone caught manufacturing meth.

There are warning signs that people can watch out for in their neighborhood. Meth manufacturers tend to go outside to smoke, because they don’t want to risk starting a fire or igniting an explosion.

Short term traffic in and out of a house could indicate drug-related activity. Excess storage of propane tanks, large deliveries of ice, and strong odors are other warning signs.

As the task force educates more people on the warning signs of meth production and use, it hopes to shut down more labs in the area.

Meth labs not only harm the drug user, but solicit violent behavior and criminal activity, according to the task force. Meth labs are also exposing local communities to hazardous chemicals that are leaking into the ground around their homes and where their children play.

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