Law enforcement and fire agencies throughout the state are getting a gentle reminder to participate in a study aimed at determining whether there is a link between illegal drug labs and the health problems many veteran cops, first responders and other public safety officials have been experiencing in recent years.
In 2006, the Utah Legislature approved funding for the two-year study, currently being conducted by the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah. Specifically, the study will look at whether exposure to the chemicals used in meth labs is killing officers or causing them severe health problems.
October is the deadline for collecting data. But Susan Black Dunn, a local attorney who represents many former drug cops suffering from serious health problems, says many agencies have yet to fill out their surveys for the study. As of April 28, only 38 of 144 law enforcement agencies invited to take the survey had participated, she said.
"We can't get the study completed without a lot of participation," she said. "It's really critical for these different agencies to participate."
The goal, according to Black, is to have the best study possible.
"I think they need to have many more participants in order to make it a truly viable, scientifically sound study," Dunn said.
But several agencies that were on the list of not yet participating
say there's a miscommunication and that some of their officers have already filled out the questionnaires.
Some believe part of the confusion stems from the fact that officers can remain anonymous.
"We believe and are quite confident we have participated," said Ken Wallentine with the Utah Attorney General's Office, one of the agencies on the list of not yet participating.
Both former drug-enforcement officers andregular-duty officers have been asked to participate. The officers who were not exposed to meth labs will be compared with those who have.
Some law enforcers, however, expressed concern about personal information being revealed. Because of that, a system was set up for officers to take the survey online, being identified only by a number. But that system also means department heads don't necessarily have to know who has or hasn't taken the survey. That may be what's causing some of the confusion, Wallentine said.
The Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office is another agency fully supportive of the study and is sure some deputies have already participated, even though the department is on the list of non-participators. Winder sent out a staffwide e-mail recently reminding deputies if they hadn't filled out their questionnaires yet, to do so.
Narcotics officers are confident the study will show a link between the meth labs they busted and the health problems they suffer now.
In 2006, Utah County Sheriff's detective Trent Halladay, who busted more than 150 meth labs in his career, died at the age of 37 from liver cancer. In 2005, Midvale police detective Jose Argueta died of esophageal cancer at the age of 32. Salt Lake County Sheriff's deputy Jade Pusey also died of a rare from of cancer in 2005.
Former West Valley cop Charles Illsley, a narcotics and forensics officer for more than 25 years, is currently suffering health problems of his own. He urges all police agencies to take part in the study.
"Police officers are dying to prove that (drug) labs kill," he said. "The bottom line is yesterday's lab cop is today's lab rat."
Illsley was among the first generation of officers to come across meth labs in Utah. Twenty years ago, officers would go into drug labs without any protection at all, and even purposely take a sniff of the toxic chemicals they found, not knowing how dangerous they were. Illsley said his years as a forensics officer and taking fingerprints off beakers and other glassware used to make meth was probably what gave him the greatest exposure.
There are 19 different ways to make meth, and Utah police have come across them all, he said. There were so many different types of drug labs and chemicals being used that Utah officers have been exposed to just about everything except heroin labs, he said.
"Every (lab) smelt differently, everyone gave you a different type of headache, a different side effect," he said. "The number one issue as health benefits and compensation for first responders goes is the lack of a cause-link between the lab and the health problem. So the quicker the agencies provide supporting data, the sooner that link can be established. My concern is police officers from an entire generation of lab raids will die before that link is established."