After an alleged meth lab exploded in the apartment home next door, Vanessa Soules found herself cradling her child at the hospital wondering if harmful toxins seeped through the wall and into her baby’s lungs.
Soules, 27, of Bowling Green, Ken., said she knew something was wrong in the apartment next door when she heard an explosion, but never suspected a methamphetamine lab had gone awry.
“If he had been doing this in a bigger (batch) it could have been something more massive,” she said. “We were in the living room when this occurred. We were on the couch and if it would have been a bigger explosion we wouldn’t be here today.”
Methamphetamine is a dangerous stimulant drug that can be swallowed, snorted, injected or smoked, according to a federal Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, fact sheet.
The drug can be manufactured in a home laboratory in a dangerous process known as “cooking”, which if done incorrectly can cause an explosion or fire. It can also be mixed in a “one pot” laboratory which can be as small as a baby food jar, but still carries the same risk of exploding.
Shawn Ellerman, a DEA supervisory special agent, said the agency’s officials train specifically to deal with meth labs and the health hazards associated with the cooking process.
“When you cook meth, it’s not natural,” Ellerman said. “This stuff is made through many different chemicals. The stuff that bleeds over from the cook is purely toxic.”
Larry Souther, an environmental research scientist at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the largest health concern associated with meth labs is the residue can be ingested long after the cooking is finished.
When the chemicals are being boiled on a stove top, any liquids that are boiling off are being released into the air and collect on the ceilings and walls of a room. And people who manufacture the drug in modern labs, which can be made in a jar or bottle, can cause sickness through spilling the chemicals going into the bottle onto their skin or the floor.
Exposure to the chemicals, which are mostly either very acidic or very basic, can cause severe burns. Any time a person touches or breathes one of the chemicals associated with producing methamphetamine, they can develop a severe cough as well as other health problems, Souther said.
“A lot of them are going to start causing blood changes,” he said. “You start feeling kind of sick. If you’re rubbing against some of it, you can start getting a chemical burn. You could start to see a rash.”
Soules said her daughter was put on breathing treatments three times a week after the neighbor’s son moved in and allegedly began cooking meth. Six months later, the infant is still on about one breathing treatment a week.
“The pediatrician can’t 100 percent pinpoint exactly if (meth) caused this,” she said. “But the timing is so odd.”
When the DEA busts a meth lab, an extensive process comes into play immediately to protect agents from the harmful chemicals, Ellerman said.
“Everything that’s in meth is toxic,” he said. “When our agents go in (to a meth lab), our special lab guys, they wear a breathing apparatus, protective clothing etc.”
Soules recalls watching special drug task force officers “wash down” her neighbor in front of their building the day of the explosion.
“These police officers have children at home and couldn’t get that stuff on them,” she said. “That’s why they had him in this suit and they brought him over by the grass and they started washing him down with a hose and chemicals to get the stuff off him.”
Officers also came to talk to Soules and answer any questions she had.
“After we got out there in the driveway, it just got worse and worse the more they talked about it,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about it. I’ve never been around meth or seen it so I didn’t know anything.”
She said the entire experience has made her consider purchasing a single family home in the near future.
One thing Soules said she’ll be sure to do before moving into a home is to check the DEA’s website which has a database of all addresses where meth labs have been found.
Soules can log on to the website, known as the National Clandestine Laboratory Register, and search through addresses to see if her potentially new home ever had a meth lab in it and what date it was discovered.
“I worry about this,” she said. “(After what I’ve been through) of course I do, but, I’m a little more in tune with my neighbors and what they’re doing now.”
To access the DEA's National Clandestine Laboratory Register visit: www.justice.gov/dea/clan-lab/clan-lab.shtml