The real ‘Breaking Bad’
Methamphetamine is cheap, addictive and mobile, and you don’t need to be a chemistry teacher to make it. Last year in poverty-stricken, meth-addicted West Virginia, police raided 533 home labs, scenes that couldn’t be more different from the TV series
The skip is filling with household items, furniture and toys. They have been removed from a mobile home in a trailer park in West Virginia, the latest illegal methamphetamine lab to be raided by police in the second-poorest state in the US, and are being discarded because they are contaminated.
Fans of the US television series Breaking Bad know this highly addictive drug as crystal meth. The most common method of cooking meth in West Virginia is nothing like what goes on in the high-tech lab run by Walter White, the fictional chemistry teacher turned drug manufacturer.
“It is not anywhere comparable to the size or the money they are making on the show. They are small, small labs here in West Virginia,” says Mike Goff, a former state police officer and now administrator of West Virginia Board of Pharmacy’s controlled-substance monitoring programme.
Jennifer Rhyne, owner of Affordable Cleanup, a meth-lab remediation company, and two staff are working on the mobile home in the town of Scott Depot, 30km west of Charleston, the state capital, beyond chimney stacks and chemical plants that billow smoke skywards.
The “shake-and-bake” meth-making method that is popular in West Virginia involves a plastic drink bottle, salt, lithium from a battery, basic household chemicals and a key ingredient, pseudoephedrine, from over-the-counter cold medicines. It takes an hour to make meth this way. “All we have ever seen is the shake-and-bake method. Landlords say this isn’t a lab. Shake and bake is a lab. It’s a lab in a bottle,” says Rhyne.
Dressed in full-body hazardous-materials – or hazmat – suits and respiratory masks, Rhyne’s staff work through the mobile home, which is still scattered with personal belongings and toys, now toxic from the meth chemicals that can cause major respiratory problems.
One of the cleaners, Heath Barnett, shows two syringes he found in the bathroom lab. Addicts snort or smoke meth, or burn it on a spoon and inject it. The mobile home had been occupied by a mother of two whose father had bought her a place to live in.
A woman and her dog emerge from a mobile home next to the former Scott Depot meth lab that Rhyne’s staff are cleaning up. It is bitterly cold. “I had a feeling there was something going on,” says the woman, who doesn’t want to be named. “There was too much traffic, and they had the back door open all the time, with the fans going.
Trailers to $250,000 houses
Affordable Cleanup has been in business for a year, in which time it has remediated 17 properties, from trailers to $250,000 houses, in which meth labs were discovered. As president of a landlords’ association, she saw the money to be made from cleaning the increasing number of labs being found in Kanawha County, West Virginia’s most populous county, and surrounding areas.
Five hundred and thirty-three meth labs were raided in the state last year, up 85 per cent on the 2012 figure. Seven meth clean-up companies operated in the area a year ago, says Rhyne. Now 17 do. A clean-up costs €7,500 a property, and the loss to the landlord averages about €12,500, according to Rhyne.
Cleaners encounter heartbreaking scenes. One woman in her 80s discovered that her grandson had been cooking meth in her home without her knowledge, resulting in a lifetime’s worth of belongings being destroyed. Barnett says they have found children living in 90 per cent of home labs the company has cleaned. In 90 per cent of those cases the cleaners have discovered breathing treatments such as salbutamol inhalers: the cooks are so addicted that they simply seek treatment for their children’s breathing problems, then carry on cooking.
In one clean-up a young girl’s bedroom tested over the limit for contaminants; her parents’ room tested negative. They had been cooking right outside her room. “Unfortunately, it is the children involved who take the biggest hit,” says Cpl Jason Crane, the clandestine-response and training co-ordinator for West Virginia State Police. “When they are cooking in the same mobile home, apartment or house they are exposing these children to the hazardous atmosphere within the dwelling.”