PARIS — “These are a problem. These are dangerous. These are going to get people killed,” Matt Cashman said, holding up two innocent-looking plastic soda bottles, one with a plastic tube sticking out the end.

Cashman, a supervisor with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, was starting a two-hour presentation on the risks of responding to possible methamphetamine labs to a crowded room of local firefighters, police and EMTs at the Paris Fire Station on Wednesday.

Methamphetamine, the highly addictive stimulant that has ravaged communities in many other parts of the U.S., has gradually grown in popularity in Maine, Cashman said.

According to Maine DEA figures, the number of meth operations found in the state has more than doubled since 2011, he said. That year, only five labs were discovered in the state. As of this month, 11 labs have been found in 2014, and Cashman predicted that MDEA will bust more than 40 by the end of the year.

As methamphetamine becomes more prevalent, first responders need to be aware of what to look for to identify a possible lab, primarily to keep themselves safe when dealing with dangerous clandestine chemistry.

“There’s no reason we’re not finding them here, except for the fact that we’re not educated enough,” Cashman said. 

Methamphetamine’s local presence was brought home in early February when MDEA agents, with the aid of local law enforcement, descended on suspected meth labs in Oxford, Gilead and Mason Township. Ten people, many from the Bethel area, were eventually arrested and charged in the case. 

The busts may have been a wake-up call for local first responders. When he held a similar meth training in the area two years ago, fewer than 10 people attended, Cashman said. 

At least 65 attended Wednesday’s presentation. 

Paris fire Chief Brad Frost said he had scheduled the training before the February busts, but agreed the raids brought the issue to the forefront of local public safety authorities.

As methamphetamine becomes more prevalent, first responders need to be aware of what to look for to identify a possible lab, Cashman told the assembly. 

“These guys aren’t chemists, they’re a lot of chemist wannabes,” Cashman told the crowd. “They’re dangerous to you, they’re dangerous to me, they’re dangerous to first responders as a whole.”

Although “lab” brings up an image of a sophisticated chemistry setup, first responders are more likely to stumble on simplistic improvised “one-pot” meth cooking operations, which amount to little more than two plastic soda bottles, cold medicine, and a collection of common household chemicals and supplies that can be bought at one trip to Walmart.

A one-pot, or “shake and bake” operation, is relatively simple, state chemist Jamie Foss, who works with the MDEA, said. 

The process relies on mixing crushed pseudoephedrine tablets — a common cough and cold medicine — in a one-liter plastic soda bottle with caustic household chemicals such as Draino, Coleman fuel, ammonium nitrate extracted from instant cold packs, a little water, and strips of lithium from AAA batteries.

That noxious cocktail is shaken together to start a chemical reaction and change the pseudoephedrine into methamphetamine. Occasionally, a “cooker” has to open the top of the bottle to release the pressure built up by the gases created by the process.

Despite their seemingly innocuous nature, one-pot labs are extremely dangerous, Cashman said.

The mixture is highly volatile and dangerously combustible. The slightest mistake — too much pressure, exposure to enough oxygen, mixing water and lithium — can produce a fiery explosion. Because of the pressure involved, if bottle ruptures, it spits out fire like a flamethrower, Cashman said.

In cases with multiple one-pots, the possibility of a chain reaction is devastating, he said.

The whole process takes between 40 minutes and two hours, Cashman said, a stunningly short amount of time. Most of the labs the MDEA has found make only small quantities, but larger commercial operations are starting to be discovered, he said.

Portability makes one-pot labs even more dangerous, Cashman said. It isn’t uncommon for a meth cook to start up a lab, put it in a backpack and go about his or her business or start the process in their car. One of the labs that agents busted in the February raids was found in a pickup truck parked in front of the Ocean State Job Lot store in Oxford. 

First responders arriving at a home for a fire, emergency medical aid or minor criminal incident should be aware of “red flags” for meth production, Cashman said. 

Discarded bottles with white chemical residue, out-of-place household chemicals and empty blister packs of cold and sinus pills or empty instant cold packs are giveaways of a possible meth operation, Cashman said. 

The paranoia often associated with heavy meth use also has dangerous consequences, Cashman said. Finding improvised explosives and booby traps at lab sites isn’t uncommon.

If first responders suspect they are in contact with a lab, leaving the scene and calling the MDEA should be the first move, Cashman told the emergency workers. 

“This is not an attempt to drum up work for Maine Drug Enforcement, we have plenty to do,” Cashman said. “This is to make you guys aware of what’s out there.”

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