Clandestine, or illegal, drug laboratories are not a new hazard to the response community but their numbers are growing at an alarming rate, especially in center of the country. The State of Missouri, for example, has seen these "clan-labs" numbering in the hundreds over the past several years and now neighboring states are also seeing the same activity. Awareness of this growing problem is extremely important because of the inherent danger to all first responders.
To help raise your awareness consider the following true case studies;
In April, 1996 an oven exploded as two people were using acetone, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide to make methamphetamine "meth" in an apartment laboratory. One person received chemical burns and was taken to a hospital where three unknowing hospital employees were also exposed. They began vomiting and became incapacitated. Additionally, three ambulance personnel and two police officers received eye irritation and respiratory distress from their exposures. None of these people were wearing any personal protective equipment.
In February, 1999 a firefighter was exposed to hydrochloric acid and consequently received chemical burns at a fire in a methamphetamine lab. After the fire was extinguished drug manufacturing equipment was found in the residential laboratory. The firefighter was wearing turnout gear at the time of the exposure and was decontaminated on site. He was treated and released at the local hospital.
In March, 1999 three police officers had respiratory irritation after being exposed to anhydrous ammonia during a raid at a meth lab. They were decontaminated at the site and treated at the local hospital.
A meth lab was discovered in Grant County in March of 2000 by the Southwestern Wisconsin Meth Task Force. While no responders were injured the local hazmat team dressed in protective clothing and looked through the country house for hazards that needed to be contained. It was discovered that many chemicals were on-site and the operator had been "cooking" the drugs in nearly every room and the basement of the residence. The site was so contaminated from chemical residue that it had to be razed.
A fast moving fire with several explosions caused by a faulty electrical strip killed three children and injured three others. A meth lab was discovered in a back room and authorities knew of drug activity in the apartment before the fire.
Recently released data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also echoes the fact that first responders are at risk when they respond to clandestine labs. From the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR 49-page 1021-1024) the CDC reports in the article "Public Health Consequences Among First Responders to Emergency Events Associated with Illicit Methamphetamine Laboratories, 1996-1999" many noteworthy findings involving clan labs. This report accesses statistics from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's (ATSDR) Hazardous Substance Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) program.
From 1996 to 1999 there were 23,327 total incidents involving hazardous substances as reported by 16 states. HSEES also reports that 112 events (0.5%) were associated with methamphetamine (meth) labs with all of these events occurring in the five following states; Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, and Washington. Additionally, these 112 events at meth labs produced 155 total injuries with 79 occurring to first responders. In other words, 51% of all injuries at meth labs happened to first responders.
The breakdown of 79 injuries to first responders is as follows;
55 (69.6%) - Police
9 (11.4%) - Emergency Medical Technicians/Paramedics
8 (10.1%) - Firefighters