Since the advent of the so-called “shake and bake” or “one-pot” meth-making process, the number of incidents involving explosions and fires — and serious injuries — has increased dramatically in Franklin County.
“We’ve worked more of these (meth-related fires) in the last two years than we did in the previous decade,” remarked Detective Sgt. Jason Grellner, head of the Franklin County Narcotics Enforcement Unit.
Last month, two people were burned, one seriously, when a one-pot meth lab exploded as they were driving in a car near St. Clair. A third suspect in the car was not injured. The vehicle was destroyed.
The man who sustained serious injuries had been holding the lab — contained in a 2-liter plastic bottle — on his lap when it exploded.
County authorities do not keep specific records on the number of people who have been burned or otherwise injured in meth lab explosions and fires, but they agree that it’s much higher since the one-pot meth burst on the scene in 2009.
“In the last two years, 80 percent of the meth lab fires I’ve investigated have involved one-pot labs,” said Jim Schuhmacher, Franklin County arson investigator.
The one-pot method combines the first three steps of a conventional meth lab, which involves cooking different ingredients resulting in noxious odors, hazardous byproducts and the risk of explosion and fire.
“You’re basically making anhydrous ammonia at the same time you’re converting pseudoephedrine (from cold tablets) to methamphetamine base in the bottle,” Grellner explained previously.
“When you shake it up it creates the chemical reaction through heat and pressure,” he said. The bottle must be “burped” from time to time to release the pressure or it will burst, spewing the caustic chemicals in all directions. Those can cause serious chemical burns.
Grellner said with the old process, investigators typically would see meth-related fires between late October and early March when people would be cooking meth indoors around space heaters or open flames which could ignite explosive vapors.
Then beginning in 2008, because of stricter controls on anhydrous ammonia, meth cooks began making the compound themselves. If something went wrong it resulted in “horrendous explosions” that twisted houses off their foundations and “blew off body parts,” Grellner said.
“In late 2009 and early 2010, we started seeing the one-pot labs,” Grellner said. “In 2011, 90 percent of the meth lab fires and explosions we saw were related to one-pot labs.”
During the one-pot process there is a chemical ignition triggered inside the plastic bottle.
“Even if you do everything right, every time you make it, there’s fire in the bottle,” Grellner explained. If the bottle bursts, it “turns into a flamethrower,” he said.
“It’s like having a time bomb without a timer.
“The scary thing is we’re seeing more of these occurring in vehicles,” he added.
Grellner said between one-quarter to one-third of burn unit cases around the country involve people who were injured in meth fires and explosions. The cost to care for the victims is $6,000 per day.
“That cost goes directly back to the taxpayers and the people who pay insurance premiums,” Grellner noted, because the meth cooks typically do not have jobs or insurance.
“That’s another cost to society that the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want you to know about,” he remarked. “And they aren’t paying for it.”