Toxic Materials: A Police Officer’s Risk

Toxic Materials: A Police Officer’s Risk

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

A Florida deputy was sent to the hospital as a precaution after being exposed to a suicide by chemical. Two Georgia officers were rushed to the hospital after being handed some papers by a suspect at their Smyrna police station that he said was to be delivered to the Chief. A Florida officer exposed to fentanyl collapsed and was revived by a fellow officer who administered Narcan. A Utah police officer’s death from cancer was ruled a line-of-duty death resulting from his exposure after working raids on meth labs.

Exposure to toxic materials is not an unusual risk to police officers who often have not been able to access protective gear. In fact, in hazardous materials courses, there is often gallows humor reference made to “blue canaries”, because of collapsed police officers who got too close to a scene, letting firefighters know there is a hazmat situation.

First responders are still dying from illnesses related to their brave response to 9/11, with 123 lost from that attack just since 2020 as of the date of this writing.

The 1980s saw an explosion – sometimes literally – in the production of methamphetamine. Associated with biker gangs who found meth production to be highly profitable. Synthetic amphetamine was first produced in the early 1900s by a Japanese chemist. During WW2 it was used by both the Japanese and the Germans to keep soldiers awake for extended battle operations. In the 1960s and 70s amphetamine was used by athletes, motorcycle gangs, truck drivers, and college students to stay awake and speed up performance.

What changed in the 80s was the advent of crystal meth. Although the main ingredient of amphetamine was put under federal control under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, the biker gangs discovered that a commonly available addition of ephedrine created a highly potent “speed” whose recipe ingredients could be found on store shelves.

Mexican drug runners, already in the cocaine business, became top meth dealers while West Coast “cooks” began making meth in home labs from household products. The labs for mass producing the substance required some isolation due to the odors and explosion risk of the process. Most of the meth of the time came from large labs in the western United States. The volatility of the process increased in the 1990s due to increasing federal regulation of various components. Cooks switched to the more readily available pseudoephedrine which required flammable chemicals to extract potency from the yet unregulated and available pseudoephedrine pills.

By the early 2000s methamphetamine had become, according to a United Nations study, the most abused hard drug on earth. Enforcement efforts required raids on suspected meth labs, and not all officers in the early days of the epidemic had the proper protective hazardous material gear that included self-contained breathing apparatus and non-porous protective suits to avoid any skin contact or inhalation.

A quick cook method became popular, known as the Nazi cook, that did not require a complicated lab. Mobile labs showed up in vans, motel rooms, and rented homes that could be encountered by police officers during routine duties. Officers were subject to respiratory illness, cancers, and a variety of maladies that were incapacitating and often chronic.

In recent years the rise in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has created another widespread public health crisis with attendant dangers to investigating officers. Although some are skeptical of any drastic effect of incidental exposure to fentanyl, there have been many cases of officers needing emergency care after exposure.

A method of suicide that began trending in the mid-2010s is done by mixing household chemicals in a confined space to allow the toxic vapors to kill. An officer approaching a vehicle or bathroom, for example, where this method is used, can confront hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen cyanide which are the two most common toxic gases produced.

According to the FBI Soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, letters laced with anthrax began appearing in the U.S. mail. Five Americans were killed and 17 were sickened in what became the worst biological attacks in U.S. history. Although those events diminished in frequency, the substance is just one of many potential biological or chemical irritants that may be faced by law enforcement. These are some of the most unpredictable and nefarious threats to our first responders.