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More state funds quietly budgeted to help cops sweat to health

Published April 5, 2009 4:00 pm

Methamphetamine » Study questions link between exposure and illness, but cops swear by treatment
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The Utah Legislature continued funding a Scientology-based treatment for police officers exposed to methamphetamine, despite a state-funded study that was unable to find a connection between the drug and officers' illnesses.

As lawmakers were slashing funds for other state programs, they sidestepped public debate and appropriated $100,000 -- enough cash for about 20 police officers to undergo the regimen of exercise, sauna time and large doses of antioxidants.

The funding was added by Senate Republicans in the waning days of the session, with the backing of Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

"It didn't come directly through the committee," said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, co-chair of a committee that would have reviewed the appropriation. "It was just arranged, I guess, through leadership."

Meanwhile, Shurtleff said plans are underway for two "Hollywood stars" to hold fundraisers to treat more Utah cops. He declined to identify the pair.

The detoxification treatment was first devised in 1977 by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. Some of the best-known Scientologists include actors John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Jenna Elfman. Actor Tom Cruise, also a Scientologist, raised money for New York City firefighters to undergo detoxification after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Purging poisons? The public and private money is the latest effort to help officers who believe investigating and dismantling meth laboratories damaged their health.

Thirty-nine current or former Utah peace officers have undergone the treatment, which currently costs about $5,200 per person, said Sandra Lucas, director of the American Detoxification Foundation. It runs the Orem clinic that has contracted with the state to treat the officers.

Five more officers are about to begin treatment thanks to private donations, and Lucas says she has a waiting list of about 80 officers.

Lucas also keeps another list -- the names of 10 Utah drug officers who have died of cancer at an early age or suffered a sudden fatal illness.

During treatment, officers rest in a sauna for hours, exercise and eat a diet high in anti-oxidants and other nutrients that boost the excretory system. The regimen, which aims to purge poisons, consumes up to six hours a day for 36 consecutive days.

Lt. Richard Ferguson of the Utah County Major Crimes Task Force estimates he was exposed to 100 meth labs in an eight-year span. He suffered from headaches and acid reflux until he underwent the treatment.

"Scientifically, I guess there's something to it because I don't have to take a prescription anymore," Ferguson said.

A missing link. But science has yet to determine whether the saunas, exercise and improved diet are simply making cops generally healthier, or are actually tackling illnesses caused by meth exposure.

In 2007, the Orem clinic's then-medical director acknowledged no studies have been conducted to show the program's impact on people exposed to meth. And toxicology experts question whether poisons from meth exposure years ago remain in officers' bodies.

Last fall, the University of Utah published a study examining whether there was scientific evidence to support a presumption that meth sickened police officers who are seeking workers compensation benefits.

The study found "some suggestions" the officers have an elevated risk of contracting lymphoma, melanoma and colon and rectal cancers.

But the study, which cost $500,000, also warned: "These conclusions must be viewed cautiously based on the low participation rates."

Principal investigator Kurt Hegmann said police departments wouldn't share names and addresses of officers. Researchers reached out through newsletters, union leaders, police chiefs and legislators, but only 5.3 percent of a possible 10,429 Utah officers completed surveys.

"We went beyond what are normal methods to get participation," Hegmann said. Researchers did not find previous studies of the issue.

Hegmann said a few officers said they did not have time for the 40-minute survey or did not want to disclose personal information, despite promises to keep it confidential.

'The process works.' Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, who works for the Salt Lake County Sheriff, was so upset with the study and its methodology she asked state auditors if they could investigate the university department that conducted it, she confirmed last week. Auditors told Biskupski there were no grounds.

Many police officers share her objections.

"I don't understand how an online or mail survey constitutes a scientific study," said Gary Powell, the former president of Utah Narcotics Officers Association. He has undergone the detoxification, and argues the connection between meth exposure and illness is obvious.

"It's not homicide detectives that are getting sick," Powell said.

Shurtleff said that although the treatment is called The Hubbard Method, "that is as far as any of these officers learn about Scientology."

"All they know is the process works," said Shurtleff. "They still have friends dying, many of them are convinced, from [meth exposure]. It gives them some hope, some help."

The attorney general's office gave $50,000 to the Orem clinic in 2007 and in 2008 the Legislature appropriated another $240,000. Shurtleff and a group of officers advocated for the latest funding in a Republican Senate caucus at the end of this year's session.

Utah Senate President Mike Waddoups said the GOP senators considered it a priority and made it one of two final programs they wanted funded. There was no discussion of its origins, he said.

"It was portrayed as a medical cleansing of contaminants that they picked up doing their public service," Waddoups said. "If somebody had been pointed it out as the Hubbard program and it's some sort of a spiritual cleansing, I think it would have died on the spot."

Powell, who says most of the headaches, fatigue and intestinal issues he once had are gone, said people should not focus on the religious foundation of the treatment.

"It's about helping Utah cops," Powell said.

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Exposure cases pending

Twenty-seven Utahns have pending workers compensation cases claiming they were sickened by methamphetamine exposure. Richard Lajeunesse of the Utah Labor Commission said most of the petitioners are current or former police officers or other public safety employees. They are seeking benefits from their police departments or the departments' insurers. A set of motions or responses in the cases are due in May, Lajeunesse said.