Trash crews worried about hazardous meth waste

CLEVELAND - Some volunteers are refusing to pick up litter along Ohio's roads because of hazardous waste from methamphetamine labs.

The residue from making the illegal drug -- found on discarded containers such as paint thinner cans, milk jugs and antifreeze bottles -- can burn skin and damage lungs. The drug itself can be absorbed through the skin by simple contact.

Authorities found more than 100 collections of meth lab refuse in ditches and woods across the state last year. Few people have been hurt, but roadside cleanup crews are concerned.

About 1,400 volunteer groups are participating in Ohio's Adopt-a-Highway program this year, down 100 from last year.

In northeast Ohio's Summit County, where police have found the state's highest number of meth labs, 4-H Club leaders are steering children away from the cleanup project. Only one of more than 60 4-H Clubs in Medina County, south of Cleveland, is considering the task this spring.

"We want kids to do community service, but if it's going to be a health hazard, we just can't," said Lisa Wittenauer, director of Medina County's 4-H program.

Meth-related accidents are spread across Ohio. Two teenagers were treated for burns on their arms and legs after picking up a box of chemicals from a meth lab dumped near a roadside in Scioto County in southern Ohio, and a farm pond near Columbus was contaminated last year when someone dumped meth litter into it.

In 2004, the state Department of Natural Resources estimated that an average 11,772 tons of trash ends up on Ohio roadways and interchanges each year. About a fifth of it consists of containers that meth makers sometimes use to store their chemicals.

Law enforcement and the national litter prevention group Keep America Beautiful warn of telltale signs of litter from meth labs: bottles with hoses attached, often stored in picnic coolers; propane tanks tinged blue or blue green from holding severely caustic anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer ingredient used to make meth; large amounts of matches, surgical masks and cold medicine; and coffee filters covered with a white paste.

"Would I be worried if one of my children were to go out and pick up trash? Absolutely," said Donna Stusek, the DNR's retired deputy chief for recycling and litter prevention.

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