Meth cops swear they can sweat off toxics
This story originally was published Nov. 8, 2007.
OREM - The first time Kelly Call stood beside a methamphetamine lab, he felt a burning in his lungs and eyes.
He was exposed to dozens of labs over the years and has had short-term memory loss, shortness of breath and trouble sleeping. But he recently began to feel better, and he credits sweating - lots of it.
"I lived on ibuprofen," Call said, sitting in a sauna Wednesday with sweat pouring out of his body. "Since I've been here, I haven't touched ibuprofen."
Call is one of eight retired and current Utah police officers undergoing - at taxpayer expense - an Orem clinic's detoxification treatment, which is based on Scientology teachings.
Its medical director, Gerald H. Ross, acknowledges no studies have been conducted to show whether the program helps people exposed to meth.
Experts are skeptical. But Call and other officers are convinced the treatments work, and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff argues they are a worthwhile expense.
"They got sick helping protect us," Shurtleff said. "We don't want them to pay for it."
Shurtleff is paying a $50,000 grant to the Orem offices of Bio Cleansing Centers of America to treat the first eight officers, and has urged Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to spend another $140,000 to treat another 20 officers. He and other advocates have launched a not-for-profit organization in Utah to raise funds to treat officers across the country.
"Yes, it's speculative," Ross said of the regimen. "But there is no other treatment being offered for these officers," he points out. "We just feel from an ethical point of view, it's a reasonable thing to do."
Flushing poisons: The Bio Cleansing Centers of America, according to its Web site, uses protocols from the New York 9/11 Rescue Workers Detoxification Program, a controversial Scientology clinic founded in 2003 to treat people after the attacks.
That program - which has treated more than 800 people - is based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's teachings, which claim poisons can be flushed from body fat with a regimen of jogging, oil ingestion, sauna and high doses of vitamins.
Shurtleff had heard about Utah police officers getting sick after working undercover or disassembling meth labs. Then he heard about the detox treatments for 9/11 rescue workers and wondered if they would help Utah's cops.
The treatments place the officers in a sauna for hours at a time. They exercise and eat a diet high in anti-oxidants and other nutrients that boost the excretory system.
The method, Ross said, has been shown to be effective for expelling other chemicals from the body - it has been used to treat drug addicts and people who have been poisoned by industrial chemicals.
Officers can smell the chemicals leaving their body, he said. Feeling better does not mean an officer is cured, he adds - he recommends they continue with the diet and visit a sauna a few times a week.
The detox should not substitute conventional medical treatment, Shurtleff notes.
Exposure effects questioned: But some scientists question whether the detox works - and whether toxins from meth labs are still in officers' bodies. Officers undergoing the Orem program walked into meth labs without donning protective gear in the '80s and '90s.
"Most of those chemicals that would have been contracted [by the officers] are fairly rapidly eliminated from the body," said Raymond Harbison, director of the Center for Environmental and Occupational Risk Analysis and Management at the University of South Florida's College of Public Health.
The problem, said Roger Coulombe, a professor of toxicology at Utah State University, is, "We're dealing with many known chemicals as well as mixtures we don't quite understand in terms of its effect on the body."
The detox "would be a good investment if there was a scientific basis [for it]," he said. But because the officers were exposed many years ago, Coulombe said, "it's way past the time to be considering detoxification. You do supportive treatment."
The question of what health effects may result from exposure to chemicals used to make meth is being studied by the University of Utah's Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health.
With a two-year, $500,000 contract from the Utah Labor Commission, the center is examining death and illness rates related to meth lab exposures. The study, to be completed by next fall, will help the state decide whether such exposures should create a presumption the officers are entitled to workers' compensation benefits.
That decision will be significant - Shurtleff said his office has a list of 20 officers said to be seriously ill from meth exposure, and another 100 with symptoms.
'I feel better': Ross said he believes a causal link between the meth labs and police illnesses has been established. Al Acosta, for one, feels there is no question that tearing apart between 300 and 400 meth labs during his career with the Utah Bureau of Investigations narcotics unit cost him his health.
Muscle spasms, chest pains, difficulty breathing, open sores on his feet and paranoia all became a regular feature of his life, he said.
After initial skepticism, Acosta said he noticed a difference several weeks into detox. "I feel better about myself," he said.
Call was working for the Utah Department of Public Safety when he began investigating meth labs in 1985. It was 1987 before police received any warning to wear masks and gloves around the labs, he said.
By then he had been around dozens of labs where chemicals such as brake fluid, lighter fluid and paint thinner boiled together.
"Nobody knew," said Call, who has since retired. "We were just trained that way."