POSTED ON JULY 28, 2010:
Never Underestimate an Epidemic
While the recent past has seen a decrease in meth labs, new methods have spiked an increase
After sustaining a number of health complications from working around toxic-fueled homes and buildings as a police officer, Harold Adair now lives a cancer-free existence and works to help others protect themselves in those environments.
Most people have never seen a meth lab, let alone walked willingly into a home containing one.
Harold Adair has -- more than 850 times.
Adair has opened the door and tiptoed his way through many of these houses with dissolved spots on the floor, apartments with stains on the walls and hotels with chemical burns on the counter tops even before the cleanup process could begin. After working for the Tulsa Police Department for 32 years, with almost 21 years in the narcotics unit investigating meth labs, Adair knows every smell, chemical and tool associated with meth labs.
And it has taken its toll.
"Everybody likes to believe, especially in law enforcement, you're Superman," Adair said. "I've had an anhydrous tank blow up on me; I've had chemicals be knocked over causing toxic fumes."
But in 2006, it became evident to him that he was no Superman. Instead, Adair's body was deteriorating from the inside out because of his contact with meth labs, he said.
"I was at work and went to the bathroom and passed straight blood," Adair said.
A trip to the emergency room and two CAT scans later, it became clear something was very wrong.
"About 12 hours later, I saw the urologist who said I had a tumor about the size of an orange encapsulated in my kidney that had to come out," the former police officer said. "There is a moment of panic, a moment of fear. What next? I go through that every year, because every year I have to go have a checkup to make sure it hasn't jumped to the other kidney."
Concocting the Perfect Mix
Today, the number of hazardous meth labs is on the rise again, boomeranging back from a period of calm. And the sobering truth is Tulsa might be the core of the newest version of the meth virus.
The latest way to create the highly addictive drug has spread past Tulsa city limits, igniting a widespread problem for police in northeastern Oklahoma and setting in motion the possibility of 2010 becoming another record-breaking year for meth labs in Tulsa.
As of this month, the Tulsa Police Department reported 140 methamphetamine labs found this year, putting Tulsa on pace for about 250 meth labs in 2010 -- the second highest number the Tulsa police have ever encountered. Last year, a record 315 labs were found, more than the number of labs found from 2004 to 2008 combined.
Unlike officer Adair, most Tulsans do not seek out such dangerous contaminated sites, but as labs multiply, so do the number of people affected who do not even use the highly addictive drug. Local leaders worry that people are moving into former meth lab homes, unknowingly putting themselves and their families in the same danger of contamination Adair has encountered.
Headlines have recently read of meth labs igniting and killing neighbors. Many other victims often do not even get their stories told, including children growing up in meth laboratories. Families of meth cooks are exposed to the dangerous fumes, and the foster care system's numbers are climbing as children are taken away because of meth.
And more children and neighbors are being tied to this growing number because the new meth labs are being found among a new group of Oklahomans.
"These are not drug dealers making meth anymore," said Mark Woodward with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. "These are drug addicts."
Oklahoma became a model state in 2004 when the legislature passed a law putting pharmaceutical drugs containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the making of meth that is often found in decongestants, behind the counter. Legislators and law enforcement were ecstatic as the number of Oklahoma meth labs decreased by about 90 percent from 2004 to 2008, Woodward said.
Then in September 2008, Tulsa police began discovering homes, hotels, apartments and even cars containing meth labs. Even with a law restricting the sale of large amounts of pseudoephedrine, the newest way to create meth called the "one-pot" or "shake-and-bake" method is spreading throughout northeast Oklahoma.
"(The one-pot method) is more of a local phenomenon than anywhere else in the United States," Adair said. "When they passed the pseudoephedrine law, they thought they had solved the problem. Well, they did for a long time, but we still have a unique problem."
After speaking to law enforcement in the city, Woodward said a few in Tulsa initiated the problem that now affects an entire country.
"We believe Tulsa is the epicenter because Tulsa is where the recipe originally resurfaced," he said. "It started circulating and mushroomed out from what started out with a small group of people in Tulsa."
Adair said the meth labs found only account for approximately 10 to 15 percent of existing labs.
In fact, an undercover police officer for Tulsa's narcotics department said the number of meth labs found this year is misleading compared to last year's number due to police layoffs and retirements. While the police department went through several months with fewer officers in Tulsa, police found it difficult to combat the swelling problem, he said.
"A lot of meth labs are found by patrol officers, but we don't necessarily have the manpower to tackle that in this day," he said after the layoffs this past winter. "On paper, there are fewer labs this year, but police are busier and unable to patrol to find these labs."
As the number of labs grew during the 1990s and 2000s, Adair walked through these homes and watched as the tools and recipes to create the drug transformed.
"They used to be really scientific in nature," he said. "You had heating mantles, large flasks, condensing tubes, and they took a long time to develop. It's evolved to where they can do it with two or three mason jars and a heating source. Now, the new labs we're seeing are in a two-liter pop bottle."
Because the shake-and-bake or one-pot method uses fewer ingredients than previous methods, the meth is now cheaper and easier to make. These labs are also simple to transport, with 32 mobile labs found in vehicles last year. They are even easier to discard, with 120 dump sites in 2009, left anywhere from stairs to buildings to neighborhood dumpsters.
"With the one-pot method, you can make it in about 30 minutes," Adair said. "You can do it driving around in the backseat of your car, in a house or in a hotel. Then when you're through, just pour the liquids off and throw the bottle out the window."
With 743 labs found statewide last year, Oklahoma has landed once again in the list of top 10 states in meth distribution. But the state is not alone in combating the meth crisis, Woodward said. The problem lies in many other states in the Midwest because meth is the drug of choice for lower-income individuals.
But even with cooks only needing a pop bottle, a pack of cold pills and a few chemicals that can be bought at the local store to create meth, Adair said labs typically still have an ammonia or solvent smell, similar to the older, larger labs.
"People describe the smell differently -- some say it smells like dirty socks, others say it smells like cat urine," he said.
At the center of the smell is the lab itself, which is often surrounded by discarded packaging materials -- blister packs from pills, cold packs that have been split for the ammonia nitrate and lithium batteries that have been cut open. Sites also have a large amount of empty packages of chemicals lying around such as pool cleaning supplies in a home where there is no swimming pool, Adair said. Burn marks can be found on floors, walls and counter tops.
Cleaning Up the Gunk
As previously mentioned, more labs are being created with only a small portion of them being discovered, and some Tulsans might be putting themselves in danger as they move into homes that were previously used as meth labs.
Bill Coye deals with the chemicals left behind in former labs on a regular basis. As the owner of APEX BioClean, his company specializes in biohazard and meth lab cleanup. Coye said people often mistake the chemicals used to cook meth as harmless.
"I have Draino underneath my sink and cold pills on my bathroom cabinet," he said. "What is the big deal? The big deal is there are about 120 different chemicals that can be used to make methamphetamine and now four ways to cook it.
"You aerosolize all that stuff throughout your entire house and what kind of environment do you have? It can't be good for you."
Effects from short-term exposure to the chemicals used in meth production vary depending on the chemicals used, but common problems are breathing problems, respiratory irritation, headaches and skin irritation, said Scott Schaeffer, assistant managing director for the Oklahoma Poison Control Center.
Few studies have looked into the long-term effects of exposure to chemicals used in meth labs, but a 2009 study showed a possible link between high exposure and cancer. Others have shown high exposure to cause liver and kidney damage.
By the time Adair learned about the possible dangers from exposure to meth production chemicals, his body had already been scarred from surgery.
Although Adair encountered more labs as their numbers rose in the '90s, he was not able to wear the proper equipment, which includes special suits, masks and gloves, until the city received the required equipment in 1999. The former policeman blames his bout with kidney cancer on the contact he had with hundreds of meth labs. After recently having his annual checkup, he was told he remains cancer free.
"Now we wait for another year," he said.
But these days when Adair is finished with his checkups, he does not go back to the police station. After being released from the hospital in 2006, he said he realized it was time to step aside from the dangers of his job and tackle the meth problem from another direction.
"It was time to self-evaluate what I was doing and make some changes," he said. "It kind of sounds corny, but everybody waits until their death bed and wishes they had done something differently. Well, I had a chance to make those changes."
Although Adair is not one of the first responders to walk into a meth site anymore, he still continues to create ways to help those who might be putting themselves in a situation similar to the one that almost ended his life.
Now, as the neighborhood abatement coordinator for the city of Tulsa, Adair is researching different states' laws to see how to create a safer environment for Tulsans. He is currently authoring a city ordinance that would protect the property owner from being held liable if they adequately remediate the former meth lab property.
Even with a skyrocketing number of labs this past year, the state does not have regulations mandating meth lab cleanups, Adair said. More than 20 other states have cleanup regulations.
Adair's ordinance would not "put a lot of burdens on property owners, but makes them responsible to maintain their property in a safe, healthy condition, and at the same time, sets standards as to what has to take place before that property can be reoccupied," he said.
However, Adair said creating this ordinance should not be a part of his job.
"The state should, in my opinion, address remediation efforts at a statewide level and not leave it for individual communities to address," he said. "The state is the best format for remediation."
After cleaning sites in other states with remediation regulations, Coye said he agrees that Oklahoma needs to make remediation guidelines a priority.
"We put the pseudoephedrine behind the counter first and for that we should be proud," Coye said. "However, now we have our pants down around our ankles because we don't have any cleanup regulations to provide safe, healthy housing for our citizens."
After testing a property to determine the contamination level, Coye's company could be scrubbing walls at one property, testing the amount of contamination, and scrubbing again. In some instances, much of the property has to be taken out and replaced, including anything from contaminated insulation to carpets.
The one-pot method does not leave behind the same amount of chemicals previous methods did, but it does result in the same type of contamination for remediation companies to clean, said Michael Freeman, criminal investigator for the state's Department of Environmental Quality.
But remediation of these properties can come at a high price for the homeowner. Hiring a private company to clean these properties can cost anywhere from $400 to $1,200, Freeman said.
Cleanup regulation is just one issue that could be placing Oklahomans in danger. In fact, state representative Seneca Scott authored a bill signed by Governor Brad Henry in May that tackles a problem many renters might be walking into blindly, he said.
House Bill 3021 requires landlords to disclose to a prospective tenant if their property had been used previously to manufacture methamphetamine.
"While the dangers of the drug are commonly known, what is often overlooked is the dangerous effect the chemicals can wreak on a person even after the meth labs disappeared," Scott said. "These often remain in a home's walls, ceiling and carpet and can have serious health consequences for future residents."
Homeowners were already protected under state law that requires realtors to disclose to prospective buyers if the home had previously been used to manufacture methamphetamine. But landlords were not required to disclose this information to possible tenants. After the bill goes into effect, this loophole will close, he said.
"This effectively gave tenants second-class status when it came to protecting their health," Scott said. "With the recent spike in meth labs, I thought it was crucial to correct this."
Igniting a Fire
After the number of meth labs began to climb in 2008, the state added a new law last year to battle the meth problem by focusing, once again, on stopping these new shake-and-bake labs before they even started.
In 2009, Oklahomans began being required to show pharmacists their date of birth on their driver's license for pseudoephedrine purchases. Under the 2004 pseudoephedrine law, Oklahomans began being required to show their identification for each purchase and were limited to nine grams of pseudoephedrine for every 30 days. The birth date requirement was enacted to eliminate sales to individuals using fake or multiple identification cards to purchase more pseudoephedrine than state law allows.
If the date of birth information did not match with the data in Oklahoma's driver's license database, a sale would be blocked. In April, about 30,000 sales had been blocked since the law's enactment in November, Woodward said.
While this new requirement might have slowed the process for obtaining ingredients to make the drug, the growing number of clandestine meth labs shows the new law has not stopped these addicts from creating the drug.
As meth cooks shake the pop bottle to mix ingredients during one of the final steps of producing the drug, many of them hold not only their lives, but the lives of neighbors and children in their hands.
With many volatile chemicals used in the one-pot method, mixing these chemicals sometimes results in them igniting into deadly fires.
"When these bottles ignite, it's often in close proximity," Woodward said. "Not only do you have a fire, but you have severe burns.
"It's just a testament to how addictive this drug is that people are willing to put themselves in danger to make it."
Many times, firefighters called to the scene of a fire are the first ones to discover the meth lab that created the fire. Other times, the firefighters are also the ones to find the meth cook, severely injured or killed within the blaze.
At one recent fire this year, a meth cook was found with severe burns on his body and ash around his lips indicating damage to his esophagus. The man died days later in the hospital.
But these fires know no boundaries and burn straight through the dividing line of drug users and guiltless neighbors. Last year in the early morning hours at the Royal Arms Apartments, an alleged meth lab ignited a blaze that burned neighboring apartments, killing two and leaving another with brain damage. Police and firefighters saw a total of 16 meth lab-related fires in 2009.
The Trapped Innocents
As labs burn their signature into neighbors' homes, another group is feeling the ramifications of these meth cooks. As law enforcement march into properties wearing protective suits, masks and gloves, an alarming picture is unfolding.
Police records indicate that many meth cooks and addicts are mothers and fathers, parading chemicals and drugs through homes with children of all ages. In fact, out of the 84 labs found in vehicles, businesses and multi-family dwellings last year, 34 children were also found, according to a Tulsa Police Department clandestine lab summary.
In many cases, after the parents and caretakers are arrested in connection with meth labs, these children are left without anyone else, forcing officials to put them in foster care. The startling fact is that most children in the state going into foster care are coming from meth users' homes, Woodward said. The faces of those abused by the drug are much younger than many realize.
Marshall Tyner is the director for the Laura Dester Emergency Children's Shelter. This short-term emergency care facility takes in children placed in protective custody from Tulsa County who are suspected of being abused or neglected. Staff works to find foster care placements for those entering into state custody. A growing number of these children, from newborns to teenagers, are being separated from their dangerous homes.
"It is a significant problem that happens with regularity now," Tyner said. "It got really bad shortly before the (2004) law that started controlling chemicals used to make meth. Then we saw a lull for a few years.
"But then they started making it by other methods. Now, the numbers are about the same as they were a few years ago."
The children filling the shelter often come in groups. Tyner said that's partly because a meth user usually develops an increased sexual appetite, which leads to unprotected sex and more children living in the drug-filled home.
In one case, the shelter had to make room for 16 children from Collinsville ranging in age from 2 to 13 years old. The shelter holds on average 20-25 children. These brothers, sisters and cousins were told by their parents to watch for the police, or they would be punished. Even after being taken away from the dangerous environment, the children had to go through hours of therapy for the guilt felt after the police arrested their parents.
"They were initially pretty reluctant to go (to their new) home because they were afraid they'd get in trouble for not looking out well enough," Tyner said.
This group of children from Collinsville is not the only group that has come from a small city in Tulsa County. Tyner said his shelter receives children from all over the county and from every type of neighborhood in the city of Tulsa.
"A lot of those that we see are children of fairly respectable families," he said. "They just at some point in their lives made certain choices, and meth is very addictive. You really can't categorize it in any one specific socioeconomic group. (They come from) all walks of life and from every area of the county."
Although the drug is not exclusive, Woodward said the majority of users are white males from low-income areas. Users are typically about 18 to 38 years old, and because this demographic includes a younger group of users, children of meth addicts are often close by.
Many of these children are coming into the shelter in the same state -- scared and in shock.
"At the very least, (there) will be the trauma of being removed from their home," Tyner said. "It could be compounded by the fact that their parents were put in jail, or it could be compounded by a parent being either seriously injured or killed in a fire. Then you have neglect. Although it might not be overtly seen as traumatic, you still are looking at a lot of children that need medical care, dental care and eyeglasses."
Some children come to the shelter from these meth homes showing signs of physical and sexual abuse. Others have developmental delays that have not been discovered by medical staff because the child was never taken to see a doctor.
In one instance, one little girl did receive medical attention before being sent to the shelter, but this 18-month-old was admitted into the hospital after her father's meth lab ignited, killing him and seriously burning the child. After recovering in the hospital, the girl stayed in the shelter before being placed in a new home.
Tyner said the shelter often receives babies, some from mothers who used meth while pregnant resulting in developmental delay and nerve damage in the newborns.
Other children are taken to the shelter after a routine traffic stop. With shake-and-bake meth labs small and mobile, many meth users can carry the entire lab in their car, not only putting the user and passengers in danger, but also other drivers on the road, Tyner said.
With these labs being found in cars, apartments and dumpsters in low-income neighborhoods as well as picture-perfect cul-de-sacs, Tyner said neighbors and friends should look for certain signs if they suspect drug abuse is occurring in a child's home.
"Look for general neglect -- kids not going to school, not being bathed, and hygiene not being met," he said. "In some cases, we've had children going to neighbors asking for food in very neglectful situations with drug abuse."
In many cases, the groups brought to the Laura Dester Shelter show tell-tale signs that they came from a home containing a meth lab.
Vapors aerosolized while creating meth find their resting place where many children play -- the floor, Adair said.
"With kids, you see that hand-to-mouth behavior," he said. "You see that intake, and you see some methamphetamine use-type symptoms."
Taking in vapors from chemicals and from the drug itself is especially dangerous to children due to their breathing rates and body size, he said.
Tyner said children taken from homes containing meth labs are first checked out by the doctor. Many of these kids already have problems from the chemicals that filled their homes.
"We see that in a lot of our kids that have chronic asthma, sinus issues and various respiratory ailments," he said.
With the money it takes to find children homes and help them medically, Tyner said the tax-payers are being affected by the meth epidemic more than they realize. Add funding for the police investigations, the money needed to clean up the site and the cost of putting the user in jail or prison, and "it has to be a phenomenal cost to the tax payer.
"It's a situation that has really taken a toll on us in society as a whole," Tyner said.
Now, as the meth wound in Tulsa prepares to spread its infection nationwide, some are looking to Oklahoma to once again step forward to combat the outbreak.
"Yes, it is an epidemic," Adair said. "Yes, it is a danger. Yes, the citizens much like the state want to stick their heads in a hole and deny that there is a problem. But meth is dangerous for those who cook, those who use and their families.
"All this seems unique to Tulsa and is not being experienced throughout the rest of the United States yet. But it will be."
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