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Propane tanks could be used in meth production

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By Lisa King

As spring blossoms into summer, more and more people will be grilling out, and they should be aware that propane gas tanks are sometimes used in methamphetamine production, police say.

Sgt. Stanley Salyards, with narcotics and vice at the Louisville Metro Police Department, recently conducted a community presentation in Shelbyville at which he explained the dangers to the public that meth production poses. The concern about propane tanks is that meth cooks have access to these portable propane tanks because anyone can purchase them at various stores and gas stations. They can use the tanks to make meth and then bring the tanks back to the store when they are empty. The tanks can then be refilled with propane to sell to other consumers. The concern is that if the tanks are used in the production of meth that traces of the drug could remain in the tank when it is refilled with propane.

Salyards explained that propane gas tanks can be used in two different ways in meth production. Propane can used in the cooling process of meth, or the tank itself can be used to store anhydrous ammonia. If the tank has been used in meth production, the brass fitting on the tank will be discolored, and will be a bluish-green color, he said. People should be on the lookout for tanks that have these characteristics, he said.

How closely these used tanks are monitored for damage or contamination by different manufacturers is not certain.

But Chris Hartley, vice president of marketing for Blue Rhino, one company that manufactures propane gas tanks for grills, said the possibility that their tanks are contaminated when they are resold is slim.

"The company is constantly on the lookout for tanks that have been used in meth production, because these tanks are reusable," he said. "We are constantly inspecting them and updating them. We clean them out often, and if they are damaged in any way, we will not reuse them. We always have the consumers' safety in mind."

Hartley said the company doesn't come across very many tanks that have evidence of having been used in the manufacture of meth.

"But you're talking about millions and millions of tanks all over the country," he said.

Aside from the possibility of danger from contaminated propane tanks, meth production poses other dangers to the community as well, Salyards said.

"Meth labs are extremely volatile," he said. "The process of production often includes anhydrous ammonia, lithium battery strips, red phosphorous and iodine crystals. Highly explosive toxic chemicals are released into the air during the manufacturing process. Many of the gases produced, such as hydrogen chloride gas, anhydrous ammonia, and phosphine gas, are very dangerous, if not deadly, for people to breathe, especially older people and children."

Jason Rice, a detective with the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, said there's no way of telling how dangerous fumes from a meth lab would be to neighbors.

"We really can't say how harmful it is to breathe, because people put different chemicals in it when they make it," he said. "Since there's no telling what you might be breathing, it's next to impossible to say what the health effects would be."

Salyards said one of the biggest dangers of meth labs is fire.

"The main danger to neighbors is explosions and fire," he said. "We had a fire [from a meth lab] recently in the basement of a business that could have been very damaging to other buildings if it had not been caught in time."

Salyards said the second biggest danger from meth labs is to children playing in the area who may come upon discarded items used in meth production.

Maj. Danny Goodwin with the Shelbyville Police Department said that overall meth use is not as widespread a problem here as it is in other areas, such as Louisville.

"Meth is an issue, but it's not the predominant drug here that cocaine is," he said. We have a bigger problem with that."

Rice agreed that cocaine is the "drug of choice here," although the sheriff's office did conduct a joint investigation with Kentucky State Police recently, which resulted in a meth lab bust in Simpsonville last year.

Info for shaded text block:

Warning signs of meth labs

Strong smell of fuel, acetone, ammonia or ether

Lot of late night traffic or activity

Excessive trash, including red stained coffee filters, antifreeze bottles, and clear glass containers

Propane tanks with bluish-green valves

Large number of over the counter drug containers in trash

Drain cleaner or lye product containers in trash or lying about