CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Toxic methamphetamine labs are poisoning West Virginia's children, senior citizens, police officers and paramedics, according to members of a group studying the state's meth "epidemic."
"It's a real serious problem we have to do something about," said Kanawha County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Mike Rutherford at a meeting Tuesday organized by the Kanawha Coalition for Community Health Improvement. "If you don't think this is a problem, shame on you."
Law enforcement agencies across the state have reported finding more than 330 meth labs this year, more than were discovered in all of 2012. More than 100 of the clandestine labs have been seized in Kanawha County alone.
Six Kanawha County sheriff deputies have been hospitalized after being exposed to meth while investigating crimes in recent years, Rutherford said. Two state troopers had to retire after breathing meth fumes and developing respiratory illnesses, he said.
To combat the meth problem, the Kanawha sheriff's office has purchased a special truck, equipment and "moon suits" to clean up the clandestine labs.
"It's a big cost for us," Rutherford said. "What we need is help. We need help."
The Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority has to shut down ambulances that must be decontaminated after paramedics respond to emergencies at residences where people are cooking meth, said Mike Jarrett, the agency's chaplain.
Paramedics treat children with burns and breathing problems. They discover prescription inhalers at nearly every home where there's meth lab, Jarrett said.
"What responders see, it breaks your heart," he said.
Illegal meth labs also ruin the lives of law-abiding homeowners who live beside residences where criminals cook meth, said Jennifer Rhyne, co-owner of a business that specializes in meth lab cleanup, which can cost more than $17,000 for a single house.
A lab in an apartment building can contaminate an entire floor of units.
"It can result in the loss of innocent tenants' belongings and their housing through no fault of their own," Rhyne said. "They must vacate immediately if their unit is contaminated. All the contents go right to the Dumpster."
In Huntington, an elderly woman was recently forced to leave her home because her grandson cooked meth there, Rhyne said.
"She lost precious family heirlooms," Rhyne said. "She was embarrassed about the situation. It was a big mess."
The meth study group -- which includes state lawmakers, pharmacists, nurses, public health advocates and law enforcement officers -- is looking at ways to reduce the number of meth labs in West Virginia.