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.
Hernando, Miss. Mayor Chip Johnson, spoke to the group via conference call Tuesday. Johnson said a 2011 state law that requires people to get a prescription to purchase pseudoephedrine, a common cold medicine that’s also a key meth-making ingredient, has led to a sharp decline in meth labs statewide. In 2009, police seized 698 labs in Mississippi, he said. The number dropped to 85 last year.
“Our meth lab problem has totally gone away in our city,” Johnson said.
State legislators acknowledged Tuesday that it would be difficult to pass a bill that requires a doctor’s prescription to buy pseudoephedrine.
West Virginia lawmakers have twice introduced such legislation — in 2011 and 2012. But legislators rejected the bills, after drug industry representatives lobbied against the proposals.
“It was all about dollars,” recalled Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha. “It was all about the pharmaceutical industry protecting their turf.”
Two lobbyists for the Consumer Products Healthcare Association — Sam Minardi and Abby Sobonya — showed up at Tuesday’s meeting uninvited. The health-care products group has lobbied against making pseudoephedrine prescription-only. Minardi and Sobonya did not comment at the meeting.
“I don’t think this was a forum where they felt comfortable speaking,” said Bridget Lambert, president of the West Virginia Retailers Association, who talked to Minardi after Tuesday’s meeting.
Lambert said meth lab seizures could be increasing because police are reporting the labs differently this year. She and others also credit a new pseudoephedrine tracking system — called NPLEx — with helping law enforcement find more labs.
Lambert said sheriff’s deputies in Randolph, Mineral and Harrison counties are using NPLEx to identify criminals that manufacture meth. State police also use the tracking system daily, she said.
Rutherford and other Kanawha County officers have said NPLEx hasn’t helped with a single meth lab bust.
“We understand meth labs are a problem and need to be addressed,” Lambert said. “NPLEx needs to prove itself before it’s picked apart.”