PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) - When a suspect is arrested and taken away from a meth lab, they leave a toxic mess for law enforcement and environmental authorities to clean up.
Cleaning a meth lab takes training and protective outfitting. But law enforcement officers say it's possible meth's dangerous remains could damage their futures. After all, the ingredients and chemical reactions that produce meth have some particularly dangerous chemicals. Chloroform, acetone, camp fuel and drain cleaner are just a few of them.
Jackson County Narcotics Task Force Commander Lt. Curtis Spiers is taking notice.
"There's reasons that they test lab rats with these hazardous chemicals," Spiers said. "And there's a reason there's warnings on the backs of these chemicals. And they're nasty things. Make no mistake about it."
Many men and women in uniform have been exposed to those chemicals hundreds and hundreds of times. Sgt. Randy Neal, Assistant Commander of the Jackson County Narcotics Task Force, is one of those officers.
"Of course the danger is not only from the chemicals but from the suspects being there booby trapping the labs on us," Neal said. "Then the exposure to the chemicals that are being produced from it, which is all hazardous waste and hazardous chemicals."
An article released in 2005 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backs up Neal's concerns. It lays out several cases where meth labs have injured those nearby.
A study by Phil Jiricko at the University of Utah revealed dangerous or even lethal levels of several different chemicals in some open meth labs. Some of the culprits carry menacing names. They include hydrogen chloride, anhydrous ammonia, phosphine and iodine are included in the list.
"It's always a worry. It's always on your mind each time you enter a meth lab," Neal said. "They're the silent ones that get you later. Instead of being the open upfront suspect that you get to see, it's the silent killer of the officers."
The Jackson County Narcotics Task Force has seven officers. Every one of them has been exposed to chemicals that could have long term effects on their lives.
"Several of my officers as well as myself, after working a meth lab, after processing a lab, even using all the precautions and the training, have a severe headache," Spiers said. "Tired, lethargic, almost achy feelings. That's happened to me personally and I know it's happened to some of my officers before."
Each officer is specifically trained to handle the chemicals. And as Captain Spiers mentioned, they all wear protective gear to clean up the mess. However, before the clean up begins, there's a great unknown that hovers over every officer. You see, many meth labs are small enough to be anywhere, from a backpack, to a garbage bag to tucked away in the corner of a room. They can even be small enough to be concealed inside a car.
"A lot of times we may not go in realizing it's a meth lab," Spiers said. "You have a police officer or a deputy sheriff that goes into a house for something else, maybe an assault, and he'll go in and realize he's in the middle of a meth lab."
Studies have been conducted on the effects meth lab chemicals could have on first responders, but the long term toll isn't widely known. In fact, WLOX was not able to find a single expert on the subject in South Mississippi.
Could the officers suffer lung problems? Could they be diagnosed with cancer? Right now, nobody can answer those questions. Consequently, officers admit they're scared, because their lives after meth are still unwritten.
"I've seen firsthand how this stuff ruins lives," Spiers said. "Not just the addiction part, but the exposure to this stuff. I've seen kids who meth labs have blown up in their faces. I've seen homes destroyed from explosions and fires. I've seen mothers distraught because their sons have died from a meth lab explosion. Those are the things that in law enforcement, we are responsible to serve and protect. And that's what, as long as we're chartered to do it, we're going to keep doing what we're doing."
Other local law enforcement agencies are also available to take tips and reports of suspicious activity.
This report is the third in the series, "Life After Meth." In the first story, we heard from six recovering meth users about the struggle to stay clean, despite lingering problems from addiction. In part two, we spoke with two recovering siblings and their mother, about healing the scars caused by meth.