CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There have been more than 150 methamphetamine lab busts in Kanawha County in 2013. That's about three per week.
And every one of them puts at risk the police officers and sheriff's deputies who find, investigate and break down the labs.
They're finding them in more and more places -- houses, apartments, mobile homes, hotel rooms, trash piles, cars and backpacks.
The chemicals used and produced in making meth are explosive. They're highly flammable. They're poisonous. They can cause immediate health problems, or they can accumulate over time and cause problems, such as cancer, later in life.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management compiled a list of 42 hazardous chemicals, and their properties and effects, that are frequently found in meth labs.
Their associated risks read like a horror show of chemical health hazards.
A small sampling:
"Vapor in high concentration may affect the nervous system causing headache, dizziness, breathing difficulties, coughing, fluid in the lungs, coma, lung, liver or kidney damage, or death. Prolonged inhalation may lead to anemia or leukemia.
"Corrosive to eyes, skin, lungs and gastrointestinal tract. It is readily absorbed into the skin, causing piercing pain, reddening, burns, and severe toxic effects.
"Ingestion can produce severe burns, bloody diarrhea, and agonizing pain.
"Prolonged exposure can lead to permanent brain and nerve damage with coughing, bizarre behavior, unconsciousness, coma, or death.
"Chronic exposure may cause allergies, damage to lungs, liver, bloodstream, and bone marrow. Contact with metal can cause release of poisonous and explosive phosphine gas.
"Inhalation can cause sudden cardiac death. Freon interferes with the heart's rhythm. Symptoms may include slurring, vomiting, drunkenness, coma, and death."
Needless to say, meth lab investigator is not the most popular assignment for law enforcement.
"We don't like working them, they don't like working them," said Charleston Police Lt. Chad Napier, who oversees the multi-agency Metro Drug Unit. "It's not a position where you get people jumping up and down volunteering to do it. It's dangerous, but somebody has to."
The Kanawha County Sheriff's Department currently employs 11 meth technicians, specially trained in handling meth labs.
They have all completed at least 40 hours of specialty meth training in places like Quantico, Va., and Chattanooga, Tenn., and, unlike other deputies, they are given annual physicals to consistently monitor their health.
The Gazette-Mail spoke with several meth techs about their experience investigating meth labs. Here are some of their thoughts, lightly edited for brevity and clarity:
. . .
Sgt. L.S. Dietz, nine years as a meth tech
"Several years ago myself and another deputy had been dispatched for a shoplifting complaint. It was meth materials that had been shoplifted from a local convenience store and luckily we had enough information to track these individuals down within 30 to 40 minutes of the theft.
"We get there, we knock on the door, identify ourselves. You could smell meth on the front door, on the porch.
"Personally, I don't think there's anything, I've never felt anything, that smells like it. It's just a unique odor. Some people will tell you it smells like cat pee. I just think it smells like meth.
"The homeowner allowed us to come into the house and as soon as we walked in it was extremely strong and at that point I noticed a pot on the stove. It was bubbling and I just knew that that's what it was.