First responders learn dangers of meth labs
Mendocinobeacon.com, May 17, 2013
A group of about 35 first responders, mostly firefighters, attended a special class May 1 in Albion, conducted by Wayne Briley. As an officer with the county environmental health department and a chief with Redwood Empire Hazardous Incident Team, Briley responds to spills or improper disposal of any material suspected to be hazardous waste, including fuels spills and methampetamine (meth) lab cleanup sites.
Firefighters, ambulance personnel, police, transportation department and public works personnel are at increasing risk of exposure to deadly chemicals associated with meth production.
Not a word of Briley's presentation referred to the treatment of someone who has been exposed to meth manufacturing chemicals. He focused on how responders can protect themselves by recognizing warning signs.
"To citizens who are not firefighters: You can be walking your dog and find a meth lab dump," Briley said. "Firefighters may see it ... at any structure fire, but anyone can [encounter] it, so it's pertinent to everyone."
In his work, Briley said he deals with emergency incidents when they happen, but also conducts subsequent cleanup operations.
He noted how REHIT officers will immediately separate chemicals found in meth labs to limit their reactivity to each other.
Briley noted an incident where a container was found with two chemicals inside, which had separated from each other. The top layer was found to be kerosene, the bottom layer was white phosphorous, which is highly flammable and will self-ignite when exposed to air.
"If we had opened that up," he said, pointing to a slide photo of the cleanup site, "this whole area would have disappeared."
Briley said discarded meth chemicals aren't just flammable, but "highly, highly, highly flammable."
Acids and bases found in meth waste are often pH zero and pH 14, respectively, the most dangerous levels known. Briley said while both are considered corrosives, firefighters need to be aware of the consequences of coming in contact with them.
He said acids will "burn like fire" on skin and cause the victim to try to wash the affected area with water. Bases such as sodium hydroxide, will burn like acid for a short time. The pain will subside, prompting the victim to think it's been washed off or is no longer a threat.
"What that means is that it burned right through the nerve endings and it's heading down to the bone and fat and you can't stop it," Briley said. "When you get home, you'll have a crater." He said doctors must then remove the affected area.
"So that finger, eyeball or ear is going to get removed," he said.
Ephedrine medications, like most pills, are mostly composed of a filler ingredient and a smaller part pure drug. The filler is typically starch-based and is used to make the pill's size and shape.
Toluene, benzene and camp stove fuel are common solvents used to separate the pure ephedrine from the starch filler. Those flammable solvents, when mixed or exposed to other reactive chemicals, often cause the fires that destroy meth labs.
Oxidizers cause or contribute to combustion of other materials and can also be found in meth waste.
"I've seen some [oxidizers] that were taken from a meth lab and put on a piece of wood and it caught fire all by itself, with no match," he said. "Those are strong oxidizers very, very scary. Imagine putting that with a flammable solid or a flammable liquid."
Invisible and lethal
Part of meth production involves using hydrogen chloride gas (HCl), which is so toxic that "one breath will knock you down and the next will kill you," Briley said.
HCl instantly forms hydrochloric acid when it comes in contact with the water in human tissue.
Briley showed a photo of a deceased "cooker" who had accidentally inhaled HCl gas. His skin was covered in acid burns and he had disgorged burned chunks of his own lungs.
Since HCl gas isn't available to the public, cooks will often make their own. The process involves combining sulfuric acid with rock salt inside a sealed container. Cooks often use empty five-gallon propane tanks and a valve mechanism to introduce the gas into the mixture. However, the corrosive nature causes the tank to decompose much faster than normal. The result is that the tank will eventually rust through and leak.
Often, cooks will install other hardware and non-propane valves on tanks making them identifiable to responders. Corroded valves and colored stains are also common indicators. Cooks will sometimes heat the tank with a plate or torch to increase the pressure, so burn marks on tanks are common.
Cooks may also use plastic gasoline containers, freon cylinders, modified mason jars, old SCUBA tanks and even plastic zipper bags.
Public attention to meth production has been elevated by the television series "Breaking Bad," which is now in its fifth and final season. The show portrays a chemistry teacher who manufactures and sells high-grade meth to secure his family's financial outlook after he's diagnosed with lung cancer.
While the show sometimes portrays how a chemistry teacher and his accomplice make meth, some viewers may think a meth lab looks like a typical science lab, with labeled jars, digital lab scales and controlled heat sources.
The reality is that many manufacturers use only what they can afford, salvage and assemble, using everything from duct tape and garden hose to drain cleaner and battery acid.
The haphazard methods and equipment found in many labs make extremely dangerous circumstances for police, fire, medical and cleanup personnel.
Mendocino County has a $265,000 mobile lab for testing and identifying chemicals at a hazardous materials incident. In 2005, law enforcement, fire and other emergency agencies donated all of their Homeland Security funds for the year to REHIT to pay for the mobile lab, Briley said.
A federal law passed in 2006 limits the amount of over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines one can buy and requires a customer to provide verifiable identification. A later amendment closed a loophole that allowed bulk purchasing online.
Briley said when cooks were no longer able to buy thousands of pills at one time, many labs moved to Mexico. However, similar laws introduced this year in Mexico have officials readying for a resurgence in the number of U.S. labs that have yet to happen.
"Read the paper, there are meth arrests every day," he said. "There's a ton of meth out there and I don't know where it's coming from. It's a mystery to me, but we're geared up to see more meth labs. It's just the way it's going to be."
Next week's installment will look at the cost of cleanup to private citizens, what to look for if you find an illegal dumpsite, and how to identify common elements of a meth lab.