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Cold medicine. Lithium batteries. Camping fuel. Drain cleaner. Salt.
All are items that can be easily bought at a pharmacy or a hardware store.
But if you see them discarded in a ditch on the side of the road, they may be the telltale signs of a meth lab nearby.
Law enforcement officials across the state have noticed a “drastic increase” in the number of meth labs being reported, said State Police Major Christopher L. Cummings at a news conference Friday.
They want the public to know how to recognize them because of the dangers the labs can pose.
“They’re extremely volatile,” Cummings said.
Methamphetamine hydrochloride, known as meth or crystal meth, used to be considered more of a West Coast problem. It also was associated with biker gangs.
But that’s changed in the last couple of years as a new, easy method of producing meth has gained popularity among users who feed their habit by making the highly addictive drug themselves.
In all of 2011, state police discovered 45 meth labs across the state.
So far this year, they’ve already seen more than 100 cases.
In fact, troopers were dealing with a suspected lab in Elmira as Friday morning’s news conference about the problem was being held at State Police headquarters in Batavia.
While meth labs have plagued Central New York, they have been popping up in Western New York as well, police said. There were two reported in the area in 2011. This year, there have been 14.
While older methods for concocting meth were time-consuming and involved complicated processes, the new method – known as a “one-pot process,” or “shake and bake” – involves simply mixing the ingredients, all household items, inside a 2-liter soda bottle.
“Unfortunately, it’s that scary. It’s that quick,” said Technical Sergeant Doug Wildermuth of the State Police Contaminated Crime Scene Emergency Response Team. “You don’t need a chemistry background to do this.”
The process also is dangerous, Wildermuth said.
The fumes from the cooking method are toxic. “It can be fatal if inhaled enough,” Wildermuth said.
Some of the substances are caustic and can cause serious chemical burns.
But the most dangerous element comes from the metal inside the lithium batteries that are part of the concoction. “If you leave it exposed to air it will self-ignite,” he said.
Mixed with a solvent, it can explode. “It will burn so hot, it’s called white fire,” he said.
To illustrate, he showed footage of two Tulsa, Okla., police officers demonstrating the one-pot method. The chemical reaction in the bottle makes it fall over and, suddenly, a flash of fire explodes across the screen.
Police also pointed out that while they use the term “lab” in referring to places where these drugs are being made, they’re not set up with Bunsen burners and glass beakers.
“I have to tell you the persons involved and premises used are the furthest thing [from what] you would think of as a ‘lab’ or ‘scientists,’ ” Cummings said.
Maj. Mark Koss, who oversees state police in the Finger Lakes region, added: “These labs are anything but neat, clean, professional. They’re haphazard. A lot of times they’re done in trailers and sheds and endanger a lot of people.”
They’re also not just in rural areas.
Locally, authorities found a mobile meth lab in a parking lot of a Niagara County Walmart earlier this year.
In April, Niagara Falls police found two at a home, one inside the house and another in a garage. One was found in a Hamburg house in September 2010.
In June of this year, four people were arrested, including one person who was briefly hospitalized, after an explosion at an Allegany County trailer. The suspects were suspected of cooking meth inside the trailer.
Police explained that the people using the one-pot method tend to be making the drugs for themselves and are not necessarily in the business of dealing or distributing the drugs.
But they often are armed. That is why many members of the emergency response team are also members of the Special Operations Response Team, the State Police version of SWAT.
State Police officials asked anyone who suspects someone may be making meth to call local law enforcement.

email: mbecker@buffnews.com