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Toxic chemicals make drug raids hazardous, even for the experts

August 09, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

HOLTVILLE — It was almost midnight when three men in white protective suits walked toward a mid-sized mobile home.

To reach the home the men used flashlights, lighting a path through a maze of debris that included old copiers, white tires from a child's bike and the ashy contents of a rusty drum of trash.

The men made their way carefully through the debris because one rip to their suits could expose them to hazardous chemicals they expected to find in the trailer off Thiesen Road.

All three, agents with the Imperial County Narcotic Task Force, have completed extensive training for such situations but there is always a chance something could go wrong, according to NTF Cmdr. Mike Coleman.


To mitigate that chance, the agents, county police officers and sheriff's deputies who dismantled, catalogued and disposed of the contents of the trailer Tuesday night and Wednesday morning took every precaution not to expose themselves to the chemicals they found in the trailer — chemicals they suspect were used to make methamphetamine, or speed.

The myriad number of rules the agents follow as they try to identify and then handle potentially dangerous chemicals makes a hazardous job even tougher, according to Coleman.

"A lot of people don't know how dangerous this stuff really is," he said.

"This stuff" refers to the chemicals meth "cooks" use to make methamphetamine.

Coleman reeled off some ingredients agents have found in labs during his 24-year career.

"Strychnine, rat poison, lithium — which is a heavy metal — and other toxic acids," he said.

That is the stuff some people willingly put in their bodies.

Coleman and his agents are charged with shutting down the labs that supply the meth and arresting those who use it.

The Holtville-area trailer they dealt with this week was a relatively small part of a countywide problem, according to Coleman.

He said the agents found evidence of a comparatively small lab.

To garner that evidence, the NTF and the supervisor of the county's Street Interdiction Team duct-taped themselves into white, puffy suits, strapped on breathing apparatuses and, piece by piece, removed everything they thought might be connected with illegal activities.

The men even went through the contents of the overturned trash can to recover possible evidence.

To do this they had to set up a "hot zone" and a "cold zone."

The hot zone was marked off with yellow police tape. The only people allowed in the hot zone were the men in white suits.

In the hot zone, agents set down the evidence they collected on a tarp, sorting through everything and taking photographs.

Anything hazardous was removed by a state-contracted hazardous waste specialist.

Every time an agent left the hot zone he would first have to be hosed down and scrubbed clean with soap.

At 2 a.m. Wednesday the men secured the scene and finished cleaning the lab site.

No arrests were made.

The NTF and SIT are continuing an investigation to try to identify the people responsible for the material found in the trailer.

The owners of the lot off Thiesen gave the NTF and SIT teams permission to search the property.

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or

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