Secret Home Drug-Making LabsBy FOX BUTTERFIELD
Expose Children to Toxic Fallout
BOONE, N.C., Feb. 20 — Sandra Rupert, a counselor at an elementary school in this town tucked high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, wondered last year about two sisters who were second and third graders. They had headaches, colds and coughs virtually every day.
Sheriff Mark Shook found the explanation when he raided the children's home and discovered their mother and her boyfriend were cooking methamphetamine in the attic, next to where the girls slept.
The girls were suffering from the toxic fumes emitted by the methamphetamine cooking, said Chad Slagle, a social worker with the Watauga County Child Protective Services Unit. They were removed immediately from the house and taken away from their mother. They had to leave without taking any of their clothes or toys, Mr. Slagle said, for fear of further contamination.
The girls are among the young victims as methamphetamine has crossed the Mississippi and moved to the East Coast in the past few years. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, small methamphetamine laboratories, known as mom and pop labs, are now being found in every state in the East.
What makes the spread particularly worrisome is new evidence that children living in homes with laboratories face a health threat as hazardous as those who actually use the drug.
A study released in January by the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, which specializes in respiratory illnesses, found that poisonous chemicals released in the methamphetamine cooking process spread throughout buildings where the cooking was being done.
"The study showed that the chemicals are everywhere in the house and that children living in houses with meth labs might as well be taking the drug directly," said Michele Leonhart, the acting deputy administrator of the D.E.A., which helped finance the research.
Last year, 8,000 illegal methamphetamine laboratories were seized nationwide, and 3,300 children were found in them, according to D.E.A. figures. In addition, 48 children were burned or injured and one was killed when methamphetamine laboratories caught on fire or exploded, as they sometimes do, the agency's statistics show.
In Tennessee, which has the worst methamphetamine problem in the Southeast, 697 children were removed from their parents' custody and placed in foster homes over the past 18 months because they were living in places with methamphetamine laboratories, said Carla Aaron, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. About the same number were placed with relatives who were not cooking methamphetamine, Ms. Aaron said.
Here in Boone, a town of 22,000 in western North Carolina near the Tennessee border, 41 illegal methamphetamine laboratories have been seized in the past two years, and 17 children have been placed in foster homes or with other relatives, said Mr. Slagle, the social worker.
"We had heard about meth for years, but it was always a West Coast problem," Mr. Slagle said. "So we were completely surprised when it hit us here."
It is hard to compare the impact of different drugs. But given the harm methamphetamine does to children and the large amount of toxic waste cooking it creates — five pounds for every pound of methamphetamine — some law enforcement officials are now comparing the problem to the crack cocaine epidemic in the nation's big cities in the 1980's.
"Meth makes crack look like child's play, both in terms of what it does to the body and how hard it is to get off," said Capt. Richard P. Nuzzo of the New York State Police. Mr. Nuzzo is a member of the New York State Contaminated Crime Scene Emergency Response Team, which deals with methamphetamine.
The authorities in New York State found their first methamphetamine laboratory only in 1999, Captain Nuzzo said. By last year the number had climbed to 73, mostly upstate.
Methamphetamine is an artificial stimulant that releases high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain, producing euphoria and great energy, often lasting up to 12 hours. But it also leads to paranoia, delusions and memory loss, and over a period of time to physical decay like rotting teeth.
There is debate among experts about how treatable methamphetamine addiction is. But most specialists believe it is one of the hardest to treat, requiring that a patient stay in treatment for up to two years.
Cooking methamphetamine is an extremely toxic process, said Dr. Andrew Mason, a forensic toxicologist who lives in Boone. There are two common methods used in the mom and pop laboratories, and they both produce dangerous gasses and leave hazardous waste, Dr. Mason said.
One method combines red phosphorous, usually taken from the strips on matchboxes; pseudoephedrine, from cold tablets; and iodine. The other method, more common in farming country, involves anhydrous ammonia, a liquid fertilizer, cooked with pseudoephedrine and lithium, taken from car batteries.
"One out of every five labs is discovered because of an explosion," Dr. Mason said. "That alone ought to tell you something. If you heat the ingredients too high, they spontaneously burst into flame."
Last Monday, a laboratory was discovered when it blew up in a house down a hollow in the mountains just outside Boone. The man doing the cooking had third-degree burns, Sheriff Shook said.
The red phosphorous method produces phosphine gas, which can be lethal, Dr. Mason said. The ammonia method can produce a cloud of ammonia gas, which is also extremely dangerous, he said.
Last year, six members of the volunteer fire department in Deep Gap, a neighboring town, were injured when they put out a fire in a trailer where, unknown to them, there was a methamphetamine laboratory.
One of the men, Darien South, 31, had his lungs burned so badly that he went into respiratory arrest for four days. Mr. South said that as a result of his injuries, he had lost his job as a truck driver for Coca-Cola and had so much difficulty breathing that he had trouble performing his other job, as a preacher in a Baptist church.
Sheriff Shook said he believed methamphetamine first came into his county via truck drivers from Tennessee, who for a price taught local people how to cook it.
The local authorities have improvised their response. Mr. Slagle said that in his first case, he was investigating a family for domestic violence when Sheriff Shook told him the parents had a laboratory he was going to raid.
"We were completely ignorant about the dangers, and when we took the kids, we let them keep their clothes and stuffed animals, contaminating our vehicles and contaminating the children further," Mr. Slagle said.
By September last year, the county had worked out a rigorous protocol. In a raid, the sheriff's deputies found methamphetamine and its residue all over a house where the father was cooking, so Mr. Slagle made the man's 15- and 16-year-old sons take off their clothes and gave them new clothing.
They were then taken to the emergency room in the Boone hospital where a nurse dressed in a "moon suit" decontaminated them, scrubbing them down with a special solution and large brushes, "like a car wash," Mr. Slagle said.
One problem Sheriff Shook faces is that North Carolina's current penalties for manufacturing methamphetamine are light, the same as for growing one marijuana plant. A first-time offender faces a maximum sentence of six to eight months in jail and can get out on bond for as little as $1,000.
"So they can be back cooking before we finish the paperwork," Sheriff Shook said.
That was what happened in the case of the two sisters. Their mother and her boyfriend were charged, but were released on bail, and the grandmother, who was given custody of the girls, secretly let them go back to their mother.
In January, the methamphetamine laboratory apparently started a fire behind the house. When sheriff's deputies arrived, they found jars with chemical residue from cooking methamphetamine in the kitchen sink along with the family's dishes.
The county will now move to terminate the mother's parental rights and put the girls in a foster home, Mr. Slagle said.
Ms. Rupert, the school counselor, said, "The sad thing is that these girls lost everything." After they were taken away the first time, people volunteered to give them new toys and clothes. This time, they had to leave those new possessions in the house. They too were contaminated.
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