On Feb. 6, state drug agents raided a home in Summit Hill, confiscating a homemade methamphetamine lab composed of plastic soda bottles, Coleman camp fuel and household chemicals. Less than one month later, police and firefighters dismantled a meth lab in a Lehighton home. On April 25, police and state drug agents raided a Lansford home and removed a meth lab. Last Sunday night, yet another meth lab was discovered after it exploded in a Lansford home.
Home-styled methamphetamine manufacturing known as mobile meth labs, clandestine meth labs, or Mom & Pop meth labs are on the rise, according to law enforcement authorities.
There were 96 incidents involving labs, dumpsites and seizures of equipment in Pennsylvania last year, up from just 10 in 2011, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The numbers have roller-coastered over the years: In 2004, there were 136 incidents. From there, the numbers decreased, with the lowest number in 2011.
Now, the numbers are sharply up. Worse, meth labs, which involve volatile chemicals, are often found only after disaster strikes. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, about 20-30 percent of meth labs are discovered because of fires and explosions.
Carbon County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Nalesnik was on hand at both Lansford incidents, just in case.
"One of the issues that we have come across in the emergency departments is the fact that something in the process of making meth is highly flammable and can explode. There have been multiple fires across Pennsylvania that have injured people, kids, and animals from these types of fires. Burns, smoke inhalation and related injuries are most seen by the emergency departments. Due to the chemicals that are used, first responders are generally decontaminated before returning to service," said Wendy Wickward, Director of Emergency Services for Blue Mountain Health System.
WHY MORE METH LABS?
Law enforcement authorities interviewed for this story all believe the rise is due to the ease with which meth labs can be made.
"They are definitely on the increase, because its so damn easy to get involved," says Lansford Police Chief John Turcmanovich. "The average person thinks of meth labs as a big lab, with beakers, glass tubing and Bunsen burners. This one on Sunday involved a 12 ounce plastic soda bottle and household chemicals."
Carbon County District Attorney Gary Dobias also pointed to the simplicity to the setups and how-to instructions readily found on the Internet.
"They can be produced in relatively small areas a garage, a basement, really, any room. And they are fairly easy to make. They use common household ingredients, and are mixed and cooked in household containers with some plastic tubing," he said.
LITTLE INVESTMENT, BUT BIG COST
While the mobile meth labs are small and simple to make, the cost can be enormous for taxpayers.
Lansford police Officer Chris Ondrus pointed to the numbers of government agencies on hand for the recent meth lab incidents in his town.
"The amount of man-hours and the cost, thousands of dollars, were expended for something we had to do. We had to secure the scenes and keep everybody safe," he said. "Sometimes, the people who actually operate these meth labs get burned and have to go to the hospital, and taxpayers pay for that."
Turcmanovich said his men put in long hours.
"My officers worked around the clock. we were there from around 10:30 Sunday night until 5-6 p.m. Monday," he said. "They worked until it was safe again, and everybody involved was in custody. Then, there's the two tons of paperwork that goes along with all of this."
Then, there's the cost of cleaning up the hazardous chemicals.
"Every meth lab is a potential hazardous waste site. It must be cleaned up by people trained in cleaning hazardous waste," Dobias said. "You can't just put it out in the trash."
The cost, he said, comes right back to the working person.
"The budgets for the various agencies who are involved in these incidents are supported by taxpayer money," Dobias said.
In addition to the costs of handling the incidents, Dobias pointed out that taxpayers also foot the bill for the consequent rise in crime resulting from meth addicts who resort to theft, burglary, robbery and other illegal ways to get the money they need for their drugs.
CHILDREN BEAR THE BRUNT
While the cost of handling the incidents can be tallied in dollars, the price paid by the traumatized and neglected children who live in homes where meth is produced is immeasurable.
The April 25 meth lab raid at 346 W. Patterson St. in Lansford revealed two young children in the house. American Fire Co. No. 1 Assistant Chief Joseph Greco bought diapers and peanut butter and jelly to make sandwiches for the frightened children. On Sunday, when a meth lab exploded at 117 E. Patterson St., three elementary-aged children and a baby less than a year old were in the house.
"You know, when you're an adult, you can make your own decisions to do stuff like this," Ondrus said. "But it's heartbreaking to see kids subjected to this. They don't deserve that. That shows how bad a parent you are, to do something like that when you have kids in the house."
Jennifer Michael, Managing Editor of Children's Voice, published by the Child Welfare League of America, wrote in 2006 about how methamphetamine use by parents affects children. In her article, she writes of meth addicted parents who "stay high and wired for an entire week, then crash into comatose sleep for several more days. Meanwhile, the house grows filthy, and the refrigerator goes empty."
The children often end up malnourished, unable to learn or behave at their age levels, and in foster care.
The Colorado Alliance for Drug Endangered Children had this to say about meth labs:
"The dangers faced by children who live in and near meth labs include contamination, fire and explosion, child abuse and neglect, hazardous living conditions and other social problems. One of the greatest dangers of a meth lab is contamination. Contamination can occur in a number of ways through the skin, soiled clothing, household items used in the lab, second hand smoke and ingestion. Children are more likely than adults to absorb meth lab chemicals into their bodies because of their size and higher rates of metabolism and respiration. The chemicals used to produce meth are often stored in unlabeled food and drink containers on floors and countertops. This puts toddlers and infants at increased risk due to childhood behaviors such as putting hands and other objects into mouths and crawling and playing on floors. The poor ventilation that results from attempting to seal in smells and add privacy increases the likelihood of inhaling toxic fumes. Exposure to waste by-products that have been dumped in outside play areas is also common for children living in and near meth labs. While much remains to be learned about the long-term medical consequences of exposure to meth chemicals in childhood, potential damage from such exposure includes anemia, neurologic damage and respiratory problems."
ARE YOUR NEIGHBORS MAKING METH? WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Greco offered some tip to help people spot the clandestine labs.
"Meth labs can be found pretty much anywhere, residences, garages, apartments, hotel/motel rooms, storage facilities, vacant buildings and sometimes vehicles," he says. "Not only due to the crime issue, the drugs and its by-products are toxic to people and the environment, people need to be vigilant and report unusually strong odors such as ether, ammonia acetone or other chemicals, residences with windows blacked-out, lots of traffic (people coming and going at unusual times), and excessive trash (including large amounts of fuel cans, red chemically stained coffee filters, drain cleaners and duct tape)," he said.
But authorities caution people to not take matters into their own hands.
"Meth labs can be potentially dangerous sites," Dobias said. There is a risk of potential health affects for those exposed to the materials, at the site, in the neighborhood, and to emergency responders. The chemicals can enter by being breathed or absorbed by skin, so it's fairly easy to be exposed."
It's a major safety issue, says Ondrus. "Not only for police, but for any emergency personnel, with the initial arrival on scene, especially when you don't know what your getting into."
He mentions the Sunday night explosion, reported by the occupants (who have since been arrested) as having been caused by a Molotov cocktail thrown through a window by an unknown person.
"That was the furthest thing from the truth," he said.