A Dangerous Business

The exposures are an occupational hazard for probation and parole officers, cleanup workers, and others.

DURING the past decade, the methamphetamine (meth) situation in the United States has changed dramatically. What was known primarily as a West Coast problem has quickly spread throughout the country, posing a serious occupational hazard for probation and parole officers, cleanup workers, and others.

For probation or parole supervision to be effective, it must take place where offenders live and work. According to a report by the Reinventing Probation Council, firsthand knowledge of where the offender lives, his family, and his immediate and extended environment are some of the critical elements of supervision. This also means supervision is conducted at times not confined to the traditional Monday through Friday workday. To be effective, supervision must be conducted at night, on weekends, and on holidays. (Reinventing Probation Council, 1999)

As we move away from the idea that the offender comes to the officer and toward a model where the officer goes where the offender lives and works, this increases the officer's risk of being placed in dangerous places and situations. To clarify the difference between probationers and parolees, probationers are offenders who have been sentenced to a period of supervision in the community, while parolees are offenders who have been released from incarceration and will be under supervision in the community.

The numbers of offenders these officers supervise in our communities is staggering. There were 4,484,575 adult offenders on probation and parole at the end of 2003. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, at the end of that year, 25 percent of adult probationers had violated a drug law and 49 percent had been convicted of a felony; 36 percent of adult parolees had violated a drug law and nearly all, 95 percent, had been convicted of a felony. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004)

In order for these officers to go out to the places these where offenders live and work and to perform their job duties in a safe manner, probation and parole officers must be able to recognize the signs and visual clues of a meth lab, identify chemicals and equipment, have knowledge of the two most common methods of producing meth, and understand the adverse health effects of exposure to these materials.

Meth offenders will eventually be placed on parole or probation, returned to our communities, and placed under the supervision of a probation or parole officer. The arrests, the offenders on probation and parole, and the increasing number of meth labs place these officers at a greater risk than ever before of being exposed to the dangers associated with meth labs.

Major Seizures, Widespread Use
The El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) National Clandestine Laboratory Database reported that in 2001, approximately 8,000 clandestine meth laboratories were seized. (Drug Enforcement Administration, 2005) Meth use is widespread: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that in 2003, 5 percent--or an estimated 12.3 million people--reported using meth at least once in their lifetimes. Adam Gelb of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, a nonprofit advocacy group, reported that federal figures show admissions to Georgia hospitals for amphetamine (mostly meth) abuse quadrupled from 2000 to 2003. (Mungin, 2005)

Law enforcement officers involved in lab seizures have sustained serious injuries, including some that have resulted in disabilities, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The EPIC Database reported in 2000 there were 4,502 cases in which officers were exposed to toxic chemicals, with 49 injuries. This number increased in 2002 to 14,895 toxic exposures and 126 officers injured. (National Drug Intelligence Center, 2004) What is missing are statistics on probation and parole officers. No national agency compiles and reports injuries to these officers. Also, not all probation and parole officers are classified as law enforcement, so they do not neatly fit into the law enforcement category. Probation typically is not viewed as a dangerous job; these officers are often thought of as social workers. Because of this, keeping statistics is considered less important.

Rural probation and parole departments may face an even greater risk than departments in urban areas, because they often lack the resources necessary to provide training on meth lab identification. At the same time, rural areas provide more remote locations in which to locate meth labs. Officers should be aware that labs may be found in unexpected places, including homes, motel rooms, garages, rented storage units, sheds, abandoned cars, and in moving vehicles.

Chemicals and Physical Hazards
Meth, a derivative of amphetamine, is a highly addictive stimulant that affects the brain and the central nervous system. The most common form is powdered meth, which is crystalline and water soluble. Ice meth is produced by recrystallizing powdered meth in a solvent such as water, methanol, ethanol, isopropanol, or acetone to remove any impurities that may be present.

The chemicals used, although commonly found, pose a health and fire hazard for officers when conducting home/field visits to the offenders they supervise. The component chemicals are flammable, usually are stored improperly, and are disposed of in such a manner that they often lead to fires and explosions. Leftover chemicals are often dumped on the ground, in the woods, or along roads. Common chemicals officers should watch for include:

* Ephedrine or pseudoephedrine tablets
* Acetone, toluene, alcohol, or paint thinner
* Black iodine
* Red phosphorous (sometimes taken from matchbooks, it generates a toxic smoke containing phosphoric acid when burned)
* Anhydrous ammonia (sometimes stored in propane tanks or coolers)
* Hydrochloric acid/muriatic acid
* Naphtha (camp stove fuel)
* Ethyl ether (starter fluid)
* Lithium batteries
* Sulfuric acid (possibly a drain cleaner)
* Sodium hydroxide
* Hydrogen peroxide
* Rock or table salt
* Cat litter.

Most of the chemicals and combinations of chemicals used to manufacture meth are caustic to skin tissue, and they frequently cause severe burns. Respiratory effects can range from breathing difficulties to respiratory failure. The equipment used to manufacture meth is often abandoned after use, posing yet another threat. This equipment is potentially explosive because it contains toxic chemicals and waste products. Frequently meth labs are booby-trapped, and lab operators are often well armed. (Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2003)

Legislators in many jurisdictions are aware of the growing meth problem and are introducing legislation to restrict access to products used in manufacturing meth.

In January 2005, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed a $3.5 million meth package to fund 10 new narcotics agents at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, increase penalties for meth manufacturers and users who endanger children, and create a state revolving loan fund for meth lab cleanups. A $6.9 million meth package was proposed in Tennessee, where 1,188 labs were seized in 2004. (Tennessee was second in the number of seizures only to Missouri's 2,280 that year, according to DEA.) After Oklahoma's law restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine was credited with a sharp drop in lab seizures, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry in May 2005 signed a measure strengthening the law by creating a statewide database linking pharmacies as a way of ensuring customers do not exceed pseudoephedrine purchase limits.

Enacting stricter sentencing laws surrounding meth production would, for a time, take offenders out of our communities. Yet someday they will be released on probation or parole. It is important for probation and parole officers and cleanup personnel to have been trained and retrained on meth lab identification and ways to protect themselves from hazardous exposures.

Interventions that can reduce the risks of exposure include learning about visual clues and precursors, the hazardous materials used in meth production, and common production methods; increasing employees' awareness of the health risks associated with these labs; and wearing appropriate personal protective equipment when entering a suspected meth lab, whether it is active or inactive.

The safety of these officers requires them to have the knowledge to make educated, informed decisions when encountering possible meth lab activity. It is imperative they receive adequate training.

This article appeared in the September 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

Download Center

Featured Whitepapers

OH&S Digital Edition

  • OHS Magazine Digital Edition - June 2021

    June 2021


      High-Visibility 101: Everything You Need to Know
      Seven Tips for How to Choose and Use SRLs
      How to Keep Employees Safe in 2021
      The Heat is Coming - Keep Your Cool Indoors and Out
    View This Issue