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Ohio agents face safety risks in meth lab cleanup

LONDON, Ohio (AP) — As he crouched over a bucket of chemicals confiscated from a backpack meth lab, Dennis Lowe's head and chest were suddenly engulfed by a fiery blast.

Fortunately, the protective suit that Lowe was wearing saved the Bureau of Criminal Investigation special agent from what would have been serious, if not fatal, burns in the flash explosion.

As frightening as the incident last summer was, it's part of the job for Lowe and four other agents in BCI's special clandestine-lab unit that responds to an increasing number of illegal meth labs uncovered in Ohio.

Ohio law-enforcement officials had located 770 meth labs statewide this year as of Aug. 24, 27 percent more than were found in all of 2012 and the largest number since 2005, when Ohio began keeping track of illegal drug operations. The program goes by the federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30, so the total will grow.

The number of lab busts dropped in 2007 and 2008 after changes in state law restricted access to certain cold medicines containing one of the active ingredients needed to cook meth.

But things changed dramatically with the advent of "one-pot, shake-and-bake" operations that rely on commonly available household ingredients cooked in small batches in plastic soda or sports-drink bottles. The number began rising sharply in the past two years.

And with the higher number of busts, the public began stumbling upon more bottles filled with the sludgy waste that remains after the drug is crystallized. The bottles frequently end up in parks, along highways, in trash containers and in landfills. They can explode or catch fire easily.

When a lab is found, Lowe, John Butterworth or one of the other BCI agents hit the road for cleanup. They always wear a $1,800 protective suit equipped with an oxygen tank that protects from flash fires and dangerous chemical fumes.

"We know the inherent risk, but we manage it as best we can," Lowe said. "I like being able to help local law enforcement protect local citizens. And it's important to me. My family shops at the same stores as the people who buy and make this stuff.

"It's really important that the public knows how susceptible they are to these," Lowe said.

Methamphetamine goes by many names: chalk, crank, crystal, glass, go-fast, stove top and trash. It is a highly addictive, synthetic drug that severely affects the central nervous system and can be snorted like cocaine, smoked like marijuana or shot with a needle like heroin. Health experts consider it more dangerous than many other drugs because of the destruction it causes to the body, including brain and organ damage, strokes and open sores and rotting teeth, as well as psychotic compulsions and violent, anti-social and suicidal behavior.

Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office includes BCI, said he is keenly aware of how his agents "put their lives on the line every time they suit up and help clean up a meth-maker's mess."

"Unfortunately, this year's record number of meth labs will likely continue to climb. We will continue to be a resource for local law enforcement for cleanup and training. And we will continue to educate people about the dangers of getting near one-pot meth labs — whether it's on the side of a highway or in a park."

Officials urge people to avoid touching bottles that contain unusual contents such as sludge or thick, oddly colored liquids. Some meth-makers toss bottles with tubes or hoses still attached.

 

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