Chemical burns

Toxic household products are key ingredients in 'cooking' meth

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They call it a lab, but an average site where methamphetamine is manufactured doesn't resemble the pristine conditions and equipment found in a scientific laboratory.

Although the meth cooks are working with corrosive, flammable and explosive solutions, they often don't take even the most rudimentary precautions, officials say.

In the mid-1990s, only a few labs were being busted in Colorado. By 2001, law enforcement officials uncovered 450 methamphetamine labs in the state.

The makeshift lab contraptions were discovered in hotel rooms, car trunks, mobile homes, and in the kitchens, bathrooms and garages of houses in residential neighborhoods.

According to the North Metro Task Force, which investigates meth crimes in Denver, a common misconception holds that meth is produced only in trailer parks, shacks and run-down motels.

An extremely potent product that tested more than 90 percent pure was confiscated from a $200,000 Craig home in January 2003, along with materials and supplies to manufacture the drug.

An agent with the Grand, Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team spent half a day in October 2003 speaking to area landlords, social workers and others about meth labs and the associated hazards.

The agent was flooded by questions from members of the audience. Many were shocked after being introduced to the dangerous process of manufacturing methamphetamine.

The ingredients for making methamphetamine include flammable solvents such as methyl alcohol or acetone, hydrochloric acid and other acids, lye, iodine and mineral spirits.

Anhydrous ammonia is used in one popular method of methamphetamine production. Usually stolen from agricultural operations or stockyards, anhydrous ammonia can cause burns, respiratory failure and death.

Many cooks use empty propane tanks to store the pressurized anhydrous ammonia. But according to the GRAMNET agent, the fittings on common propane tanks are not compatible with anhydrous ammonia and are prone to fail under pressure.

The process produces equally deadly chemicals, such as phosphine gas, which is so poisonous that it kills a person before one can smell it, the GRAMNET agent said.

The gases are vented through makeshift apparatuses -- or not at all. Homes in Colorado have been found stained from the resulting vapors, producing contamination that can last for years.

Denver police found a couple dead in a motel room after they were overcome by the poisonous gas produced during the cooking process.

Meth cooks use glass cooking dishes, plastic beverage containers, coffee filters, hot plates and even microwaves during different phases of the process.

The cooks heat flammable liquids over flames or electric burners that sit on top of wobbly tables, beds or crowded countertops, the GRAMNET agent said.

Professional-looking labs have been discovered, but most are haphazard contraptions that produce primarily two things: methamphetamine and toxic waste.

The GRAMNET agent said 5 to 6 pounds of waste are produced for every pound of methamphetamine. The waste is flushed down the toilet, dumped at roadsides or in trash cans at public parks.

GRAMNET is so wary of the health hazards that officers who enter a suspected meth lab undergo decontamination before they leave the scene.

One agent double washes clothes after a bust to remove contaminants. Even brief exposure concerns first responders and others who enter a meth lab, where those who manufacture the drug often make their home.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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