Worked Near Meth Labs, Now Sick, But No Help E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   
For police officers dispatched to locations where crystal methamphetamine has been or is being manufactured, there are two threats to be aware of. The first has to do with what exposure to the toxic chemicals used in the drug's production will likely do to your health.

The second danger is getting left on your own financially when the medical bills start rolling in.

Much like the first responders at Ground Zero after the attacks of September 11, cops exposed to the chemicals used in the production of meth can suffer from a myriad of symptoms and diseases.

Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Gary Sterner recently ticked off the ailments he attributes to methamphetamine exposure for an interview with the Salt Lake City Tribune , including headaches, joint pain, esophageal problems and memory loss.

But while his poor health is obviously related to on the job exposure to toxins, Sgt. Sterner and other cops exposed to meth labs are having a hell of a time proving it.

The problem is that law enforcement moves at a quicker pace than science and state laws. That could leave a lot of sick cops out in the cold when it's time to pay the tab for specialized and intensive health care costs.

The Utah Labor Commission has dismissed 19 cases filed by the so-called "Meth Cops" or their survivors seeking workers compensation benefits this year alone.

Many of those cases were actually dismissed at the requests of the officers, who wanted more time to find evidence that busting meth labs contributed to their ailments before they refile their claims.

Right now that evidence is extremely hard to come by.

That's a function of the failure of science and legislation to deal with adverse effects on officers' health at the same rate officers are exposed to meth labs.

Sgt. Sterner's case is proceeding after a judge determined there was evidence to support his claims that exposure to toxins was making him extremely sick. But the case of his deceased wife, Kelly Nye, was dismissed.

The Meth Cops are comprised of a few dozen current or former police officers, like Sterner and Nye, who investigated or dismantled Utah meth labs beginning in the 1980s and 1990s.

They claim the fumes of cooking methamphetamine, its discarded byproducts or handling the drug itself caused ailments ranging from cancers, respiratory impairments, nervous system disorders and insomnia.

Some of the cops began filing worker compensation claims against their employers beginning in 2005 when they got too sick to work.

But proof meth caused their symptoms has been tough to find.

In addition, the hope of legislators stepping up and doing the right thing for sick public employees seems highly unlikely.

Sgt. Sterner's deceased wife Kelly was a Salt Lake City police officer who for nine months in the early 1990s was assigned to a narcotics task force. Six months later, while still in her early 30s, Nye needed a hysterectomy, Sterner said. The doctors were surprised because she was so young, Sterner said.

Eventually, her spleen and gall bladder also were removed and her liver swelled. She died of kidney failure in 2005 at age 49.

J.D. Ashby, an attorney for Workers Compensation Fund, said his clients have not yet taken a legal position on the cops' claims, but he would not be surprised if some of the dismissed cases are filed again.

"It's just at this point they don't have evidence to survive the motion to dismiss," Ashby said.

The dismissals of cases are likely to save a lot of money. Strener's attorney, Mrs. Black Dunn said successful workers compensation cases could mean $500,000 to $1 million per officer. That would cover lost work hours and past and future medical expenses.

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