Deadly litter

Snohomish County residents are stumbling across dangerous trash – the refuse of illegal methamphetamine labs


Herald Writer

Herald Writer

Like many parents, Sandra Kelly taught her children to leave a campground or a trailhead cleaner than they found it.

Picking up someone else’s bottles and cans is just something you do to make the world a better place, she said.

But Kelly no longer thinks that’s such a good idea.

After attending a seminar on the hazards of methamphetamine, Kelly, a grant writer with the Lakewood School District, learned that some litter can cause serious injury.

It can even kill.

A dramatic increase in the number of small, illegal drug labs has parents worried about their children’s safety.

Residents of Everett, Arlington, Granite Falls, Lakewood and other areas of the county are stumbling upon dangerous dump sites, said officials with the Snohomish County Regional Drug Task Force.

Methamphetamine "cooks" are dumping toxic chemicals in front yards, by the side of the road, at parks or at campgrounds in a rush to get rid of evidence.

Adults come across the trash and want to clean it up.

Children come across the trash and find it inviting: a collectible to bring home to mom or dad.

"Kids pick up these pretty blue bottles," said Jack Wilson, Snohomish County prevention coordinator for substance abuse.

But pretty bottles can contain anhydrous ammonia, a deadly chemical.

And the delicate blue tint is a result of corrosion that has destroyed the brass fittings on the container.

"Those things can rupture, explode and cause terrible injury," Wilson said.

Discarded mason jars or soda bottles filled with lye, propane bottles and lithium camera batteries may look like a typical pile of trash, but their contents can blind, maim or kill.

Many injuries have been associated with meth labs in homes.

Two years ago, a 3-year-old Lakewood girl reached across the kitchen table and grabbed a soda bottle. The bottle was a makeshift chemical beaker; the "soda" was Red Devil Lye. A sip left her with a severely burned throat and esophagus.

Now, those same deadly substances — ammonia found in propane bottles, lye found in soda bottles — are finding their way into the hands of unwitting adults and children whose streets, neighborhood parks and campgrounds have become the dumping ground for meth debris.

Illegal drug manufacturers discard their chemicals wherever it’s convenient, a fact Kelly and other educators recently learned while attending one of Wilson’s hazardous drug waste seminars.

"In the past, when we’d go camping, I would have told my son just go grab those bottles and throw them away," Kelly said. "But in doing so, I could have killed us all."

Meth cooks have become more clandestine and more creative in where they toss the trash.

Everett police recently found a propane bottle filled with ammonia stuffed inside a portable toilet.

Propane bottles and ammonia don’t mix, Wilson said. Shake or jiggle a propane bottle filled with ammonia and it can trigger a lethal explosion.

Loosen the valve on that same container and a stream of liquid ammonia, which maintains a temperature of 28 degrees below zero, can cause instant frostbite.

"You have no time to run away," state Department of Ecology spokesman Curt Hart said.

A drop of ammonia can permanently blind; a whiff of the fumes can blister and burn skin and lung tissue.

"If you find debris that looks suspicious, get as far away as possible and call the police or confidential meth hotline," Wilson said.

Unlike large-scale methamphetamine labs that sprang up several years ago and supplied hundreds of users, the new labs are small enough to fit neatly inside a plastic milk crate or a Styrofoam cooler.

Their portability allows cooks to brew their drugs inside a van or in the trunk of a car — a meth lab on wheels.

Statewide, police estimate they’ll clean up 1,500 mobile and home-based meth labs this year, up from 789 in 1999.

Among home-based labs, a third of those homes will have children living in them; another third will be stocked with guns and ammunition, Hart said.

"We haven’t seen a gradual increase in the little labs, we’ve seen a full-bred spike in the number," he said.

Mobile meth labs are one method cooks use to elude police. By taking their show on the road, they can pull over and park in cul-de-sacs or at a campground for the half-hour it takes to make an ounce or two of methamphetamine. Dealers can sell 1/16th of an ounce of meth for about $80.

A quick road trip can produce enough meth to supply the cook and a few others for a week or two, Wilson said.

"My concern is not just for the people that take the stuff, but the people who live in the neighborhood, people going to the park or getting ready to take a hike," Wilson said.

Once the cooks hit the highway, police and firefighters have few clues as to which car, truck or mobile home is a rolling meth lab stocked with chemicals in jury-rigged, makeshift containers, Hart said.

"Rear-end one of these, and you could puncture a canister of anhydrous ammonia, which can be life-threatening," he said.

"And remember, under all these highly flammable chemicals you’ve got a tank of gas," he added.

Firefighters now approach all car and house fires with added caution.

"It used to be an overheated engine or a burnt pan, now it’s a batch of chemicals spewing deadly fumes from the back seat or a bathroom," Hart said.

Police must also be wary every time they enter a house or conduct an arrest.

A recent drug bust at an Olympia house brought police face to face with a man wearing a gas mask.

"He had a pound of sodium soaking in a pail of kerosene," Hart said. "That’s enough to level the house had it come in contact with water."

Hazardous materials workers and health care workers must also use caution when they provide medical attention to someone who has been exposed to a meth lab.

Medics aboard a helicopter that was transporting a burn patient injured in a meth lab fire to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle were overcome by ammonia fumes emanating from the patient’s skin and clothes.

By the time the brief flight ended, doctors discovered that the medics’ lungs were blistered from inhaling the toxic fumes.

Miniature meth labs, coolers and cardboard boxes filled with containers of chemicals, have been discovered alongside the highway by county road crews and ecology youth workers.

Home-based labs can go unnoticed unless neighbors take notice of suspect trash, or in the case of a suspected south Everett meth lab, the odor of chemicals.

Even a small mobile or home lab has the potential to blow up half a city block, Wilson said.

Everett police recently discovered a suspected meth lab, in the 11500 block of Second Avenue SE after they received reports of a strange odor in the area.

Hazardous-materials units circled the driveway of the mobile home. Neighbors said they had no idea the residence was home to a drug lab. They learned of it only when police told them to stay inside to keep from breathing any noxious fumes.

By the time haz-mat workers arrived, however, the small lab had been moved: driven away in the back of a car.

Neighborhood parents agonized about their children. What had they touched or inhaled while the lab was operating?

What toxic chemicals had been dumped near the mobile home, with its swing set planted in the front yard?

The meth lab, as one mother noted, was just two blocks from Discovery Elementary School.

The Herald/DAN BATES

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