Blue canaries

Dec. 17, 2004

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Portland Tribune

First of two parts

Every time Jim Bellah takes a breath, his scarred lungs remember methamphetamine.

Bellah has never used the stuff. But exposure after exposure when the retired detective was the top cop in the Portland Police Bureau’s meth-lab investigations during the late 1980s left him with emphysema, he and his doctor believe.

At least four Drugs and Vice Division officers who worked with Bellah in that era have or have had cancer. One has a chronic cough. Another has recurring sinus infections. The Police Bureau’s public information officer from that time, who responded to many a meth lab, has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is on disability and has sued with six others for lifetime medical benefits.

“We just didn’t know the nature of the nasty crap we were dealing with,” Bellah, 59, told the Portland Tribune. “We were working with the best information we had at the time, but we were learning as we went. Apparently it wasn’t enough.”

The city’s Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund does not keep track of how many officers have filed meth-related disability claims.

Officers who worked meth labs in the late 1980s all remember the nausea, headaches, dizziness and diarrhea. The sleeplessness. The smell, that awful cat-urine stench that would cling to them, their equipment and their cars and follow them home to their spouses and children.

“We had a name for the cops then,” said Bill Henle, the Fire Bureau’s former hazardous materials coordinator. “We called them blue canaries, because if we showed up somewhere and they were still standing up and walking around, it was probably pretty safe for us.”

No medical study has attempted to link the meth-making chemicals prevalent in the 1980s to cancer or other long-term diseases. The studies that have been done focus on immediate effects of exposure or on lung capacity over a short period of time. Six of the chemicals that Portland officers found repeatedly, however, are possible carcinogens.

Rob Aichele, a retired deputy police chief who worked with Bellah, remains unconvinced of any connection between exposure to meth chemicals and long-term illnesses.

“I just don’t see any cause-effect relationship, and I didn’t then,” Aichele said.

Bellah’s answer: “There’s a reason you don’t find any meth cooks over 50.”

Bellah and other officers on the division’s day shift entered a huge majority of meth labs in Portland from 1986 to 1991, walking in to dozens of them unprotected. The officers — dozens were assigned to the division during that span of time — often were in T-shirts and jeans, occasionally in uniform. Maybe rubber gloves. Until May 1987, they wore nothing more than that, even when examining, sampling and transporting the chemicals they found.

The division bought cheap stainless-steel Ruger .357-caliber handguns that were easier to clean than their service weapons. Some officers cleaned them in the dishwasher, then re-oiled them to use again. They learned to decontaminate their badges with soap and water after being in a lab.

Even after the division borrowed equipment from the Fire Bureau’s hazardous materials team beginning in 1987, even after the division got its first money for light protective gear from Aichele in 1988, even after a federal grant approved the same year finally gave the division the equipment it had almost begged for, the officers still rarely made their initial entry fully protected.

Today, division officers at a meth lab wear fire-retardant suits, hoods, plastic chemical-repellant suits, gloves, goggles, boots, air tanks and self-contained breathing gear. Putting them on takes five to 10 minutes. Often, they wear two types of gloves. Contractors, not cops, clean up the sites.

Yet division officers still rarely wear all their gear to first enter a lab.

“Not on entry, no” said Sgt. Eric Schober, the Police Bureau’s meth specialist. “It’s too cumbersome for what we need on entry. It’s mostly just not practical.”

So far this year, Police Bureau employees have raided 112 labs.

Meth recipe’s a cinch

The year 1985 saw then-Chief Penny Harrington controversially disband the Drugs and Vice Division — referred to in the acronym-happy Police Bureau as DVD — sending its personnel to the broader Detective Division. The Police Bureau, she said, was overly specialized. Her successor, James Davis, quickly reinstated the DVD after Harrington’s forced departure in June 1986.

Drug activity in Portland had spiked in the intervening 18 months. Without the DVD, the Police Bureau was nearly blind to it. In 1985, police found one drug lab in Multnomah County. In 1986, they found four. In 1987, they found 34.

Meth was the new thing, a white powder a user could inject, snort or smoke cheaper and with a longer-lasting high than cocaine has. And it was easy to make with many different possible ingredients, methods and recipes.

“If you can make chocolate-chip cookies, you can make meth,” said John McLaughlin, a former DVD sergeant who retired in 1999.

Connell McGeehan, supervisor of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Portland office from 1986 to 1989, said meth caught almost everyone off guard.

“Being an East Coast guy — I came to Portland from New York — I was surprised at the volume of methamphetamine we found out there,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Pennsylvania. “It was a lot. More than, I think, anyone expected.”

A memo dated Sept. 17, 1986, from Bellah to the custodian of the Police Bureau’s property room described 25 chemicals that officers were likely to find in a meth lab.

“From our limited contact thus far during 1986, it has been apparent that we do not have the facilities to handle hazardous materials nor do we have the funds available to hire private firms to handle, store and destroy these materials,” Bellah wrote. “My training and experience indicates that unless proper steps are taken in the immediate future, there is a risk of injury to officers responding to and investigating clandestine labs.”

The chemicals that officers encountered have harsh side effects. Among them, mercuric chloride, sulfuric acid, benzyl chloride, chloroform, lead acetate and phenylacetic acid are possible carcinogens, according to the Hazardous Substances Data Bank at the National Library of Medicine. Phenyl-2-propanol can bring on hypoglycemia and cause respiratory arrest. Methylformamide has caused testicular lesions in rats.

There were dozens of other substances.

Officers found the chemicals in cola cans stored at child level in a refrigerator and in buckets, beakers and salad-dressing bottles. They found labs in houses, cars, motels and storage units. And as the officers found more labs and collected more informants and better information, they found more working labs and fewer lab remnants.

Frederick Berman, director of the Toxicology Information Center at Oregon Health & Science University’s Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology, said the meth cooks themselves added to the chemicals’ danger.

“If you mix the chemicals wrong, if they spill, if there’s a fire, the chemical compounds change in a way you can’t predict,” he said. “Those compounds, too, can be carcinogenic.”

A 2002 study, “Medical Surveillance of Clandestine Drug Laboratory Investigators,” tracked 40 law enforcement officers in California from 1991 to 1998. All showed diminished lung capacity consistent with continued smoking, though only 28 percent of the group had ever smoked.

“Better and more studies need to be done,” said Jefferey Burgess, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Arizona and one of the authors of the 2002 study. “There is no study out there looking at cancer or emphysema, and if you ask yourself what you need to do these studies, the answer is money.”

Police Chief Derrick Foxworth, a former DVD officer himself, said perhaps Portland should find the money for a study.

“I’ll support trying to get answers for these officers,” he said. “If the research isn’t out there, maybe we should look into it ourselves.”

‘Nothing prepared us’

In 1986, dealing with a lab was simple.

Many times, a uniformed officer on patrol would find a suspected lab and call McLaughlin regardless of the hour, who would call Bellah. Bellah would get on the phone to a judge for oral authorization of a search warrant, and McLaughlin would assemble a team of DVD cops. They would meet near the suspected lab.

“When you serve a search warrant, you want the element of surprise,” McLaughlin, 58, said. “You want to blow the door and have everyone inside freeze in shock. A bunch of guys getting dressed in gear outside a house doesn’t give you that.”

There was no gear available, anyway, beyond rubber gloves.

Officers would carry the chemicals out in boxes, usually hugged against their chests, under their noses. The boxes would go in the trunk of their patrol cars, in the back seat or in a van.

Cliff Madison, 47, was a DVD officer from 1984 to 1985 and again from 1986 to 1990. Commander of the Police Bureau’s North Precinct today, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer cells in 2002 after he went to the doctor complaining of severe acid reflux. A nonsmoker and moderate drinker, Madison has no history of cancer in his family.

“You do the best job you can while doing the job you need to do,” he said. “We didn’t know what was in the gases and compounds we found. Nothing in our experience had prepared us.”

Northeast Precinct Cmdr. Bret Smith, 45, a DVD officer from 1986 to 1992, sees Madison and worries about himself. He has had a chronic cough since his years in DVD and, just recently, severe acid reflux, from which he never before suffered. Smith said he has never smoked or been a big drinker.

“Do I know it’s the same thing as Cliff’s got?” he asked. “No, I don’t. The doctors tell me it’s related to the sinus infections I’ve had for years, before I ever did meth labs, before I even joined the department. But I don’t necessarily believe I have what they say I have. Still, the main thing is I don’t know.”

He remembers especially the phenylacetic acid, which usually is used to make perfume. After busting one lab, he recalls the smell coming out of his mouth, elbows, fingers and knees for two weeks.

“That was awful,” Smith said. “My wife didn’t want to be in the same room as me.”

Some busts were nastier than others.

A Jan. 10, 1987, raid on a house at 4918 S.E. Boise St. yielded more than 100 pounds of meth in the basement and more than 300 syringes along with a lab. The van that police used to remove the drugs and chemicals got contaminated and was never used again. DVD officers tore the Sheetrock in the basement down to the studs.

“Sometimes the best thing for you was finding something else to do the day of a search warrant,” said Kerry Taylor, 56, supervisor of the state Department of Justice’s organized crime section in Salem.

A DVD officer from 1986 to 1991 and a former triathlete who smoked Kool cigarettes for 14 years, Taylor retired from the Police Bureau as a sergeant in 1999. In 2000, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Doctors removed the kidney, connective tissue and surrounding lymph glands. A regular blood test for a slow thyroid gland found the cancer.

“I don’t begrudge Kerry a bit,” Bellah said. “Being around that stuff wasn’t the best way to spend your day.”

After the Southeast Boise Street bust, Bellah filed a “Disability — In Line of Duty” form with the city’s Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund, noting sleeplessness, sore throat, diarrhea and persistent cough. On the line marked “Cause of Disability,” he wrote, “Exposure to toxic chemicals at clandestine labs.”

“Pretty quickly, we did this kind of a handshake deal where the Fire Bureau hazmat team would show up if we called them on a drug lab and let us use their stuff,” Bellah said.

DVD officers began training with the hazmat team’s breathing equipment in late April 1987 and learned how to use other equipment later.

In addition to the respirators and gloves — the hazmat team had a dozen kinds of gloves — DVD cops could use what they called “Gumby suits,” green, rubber, full-body suits with respirators, goggles and speaker boxes through which to talk.

Madison said the Gumby suits were ill-suited to serving warrants.

“You want dexterity, you want freedom of movement, you want peripheral vision, and we had none of that,” he said. “You couldn’t be 100 percent sure your commands were being understood by a suspect. There were guys who didn’t want to wear those things.”

McLaughlin, who is free of symptoms, said it was hard to see at first that they were necessary.

“I was young,” he said. “I drove fast, I drank whiskey, I chased women, and I smoked Camel straights. I was pretty damn sure I was invincible.”

Two months after they began hazmat training, in June 1987, Dirk Anderson, now a Police Bureau detective attached to the U.S. Marshals office in Portland, was diagnosed with cancer in his left kidney. The size of a grapefruit, the kidney and its cancer were removed that month. Doctors also removed a couple of Anderson’s ribs.

“If I hadn’t been peeing blood, I don’t think they would have found it as soon,” Anderson said.

Anderson, 48, was assigned to the DVD from 1983 to 1985 and from 1986 to 1992. Such were the hours in the DVD that, with overtime, Anderson boasts that he made more money than Mayor-elect Tom Potter did when Potter was chief of police.

Still, when the DVD asked about getting its own equipment, the response came again and again that there was no money in the budget for it.

“Money was tight,” said Aichele, who retired in 1993.

New procedures instituted

On Nov. 12, 1987, Bellah met with the hazmat team, representatives from East Precinct and Central Precinct, and then-DVD Capt. Robert Brooks. They agreed on the first procedure for officers at a meth lab.

According to notes of that meeting, they agreed that the first officer on the scene would be decontaminated and the officer’s uniform would be placed in a plastic bag, then locked in a drum.

Personal effects and leather items would be kept in a different bag. Contaminated officers would not be allowed to get back into their patrol cars. The officers would make a note in their precinct or division injury log and fill out a “Hazardous Material Exposure” form, with a copy going to the DVD.

Those at the meeting agreed as well, according to the notes, that suspects were to be cuffed and stripped at the scene.

“The prisoner will be afforded as much privacy as possible,” the notes read, “but will be placed in a disposable suit with a hood.”

Plastic from the Fire Bureau would cover the back of any police car used to transport contaminated suspects.

Also, vehicles containing chemicals would be towed and labeled, and officers wearing protective gear would help tow-truck drivers hook the vehicle to the truck.

“We were criticized by other agencies that it was overkill, that we were going too far,” Henle, the retired hazmat coordinator, said. “I don’t believe that for one minute.”

New gear comes, eventually

While the Portland Police Bureau put policies in place and worked with hazmat experts, other agencies were just becoming aware of the dangers of meth chemicals.

At a meth forum sponsored by then-U.S. Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in November 1987, a Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy unscrewed the cap from a vial of methylamine and passed it around, inviting others to smell it. Bellah told him the chemical was a severe skin irritant that could cause fatigue and damage to passageways in the ears, nose and throat. The deputy put the vial away.

By 1989, Henle and Bellah were giving seminars in Oregon and Arizona on safety procedures in meth labs, and Bellah had testified before state legislative committees in Salem and the state Board of Pharmacy urging restrictions on meth-making chemicals.

In the interim, Bellah pushed ever harder for money for protective equipment exclusive to the DVD.

“When members of the Portland Police Bureau have learned of a lab in operation, we have aggressively attempted to locate and dismantle it,” he wrote to then-Mayor Bud Clark in a letter dated Jan. 13, 1988. “However, because we only recently obtained (access to) the proper safety equipment, we have not had an active ‘seek and destroy’ program on methamphetamine labs.”

Two months later, Aichele gave Bellah a $5,000 check for the first DVD-only protective equipment, taking the money from a cache of seized drug funds. Bellah bought washable vests with holsters and snaps for holding handcuffs, wraparound goggles with peripheral vision and cheap Ruger handguns for use only in meth labs.

“I’m of the opinion that if it makes them feel safer — if they feel they need it — and it’s a modest financial outlay, you give it to them,” Aichele said.

Bellah wanted more. In a memo to his captain, Brooks, dated March 30, 1988, Bellah maligned the minimal training in the DVD with the new equipment.

“I do not believe that a group of 10 officers from this unit could put the equipment on one day later and safely serve a search warrant on a working lab,” Bellah wrote.

He also asked in the memo for regular medical exams of DVD cops, though he acknowledged that they would be costly, and suggested forming only one or two teams to serve search warrants on labs to maximize and better focus officers’ training.

Left unsaid was that it also would minimize the number of officers exposed to meth-making chemicals.

That October, then-U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin, D-Ore., announced a $510,000 federal grant for Portland to use in fighting meth labs. Part of the money was for physicals; other money from the grant bought more and better safety equipment and a custom motor home in which to store it.

At that point, only Anderson had developed a serious disease among the DVD officers. Bellah’s first symptoms were five years in the future, Madison’s still 14 years distant. Henry Groepper, a former public information officer, was about to be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When they were faced with their diagnoses, they had decisions to make about how to proceed.

Coming Tuesday: Portland meth cops cope in different ways with their afflictions.

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