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Meth Labs Becoming More Common in Urban Areas

Suspected lab discovered this week in densely populated Virginia Square neighborhood of Arlington County in line with larger trend.

Meth labs, once associated primarily with rural parts of the state, have become more and more common in urban areas — and this week showed Arlington County is no exception to that trend.

And the migration isn't limited to Virginia: Over the past few years, reports of similar things happening in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio, among other places, have popped up, too.

"Thankfully, in Northern Virginia, not very many of them have been discovered. And I use the term 'discovered' because people are doing this everywhere," said Joe Taylor, a regional hazardous materials officer with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

"While there's certainly a large concentration of them typically in rural areas, we are finding clandestine manufacturing more and more in an urban setting all over the commonwealth."

While specific numbers weren't immediately available, Taylor said in a phone interview this week the number of meth labs discovered and processed statewide is up this year compared to years past.

State and local authorities in Virginia Square.

Police were called to the apartment over an argument, but said items "consistent with that of the manufacturing of methamphetamine" were in plain view. Leonard Fischer, 44, and William Hudgens, 31, were arrested and each was charged with attempted manufacturing of methamphetamine.

Fischer is a former technology writer for Gannett News Service whose stories appeared in USA Today, according to media blogger Jim Romenesko.

Police have not released much information about the incident. It's not clear, for instance, if one or both of the men lived in the apartment, the nature of their relationship, just how sophisticated the suspected meth lab was or how long it was operational.

Monday night, authorities evacuated three floors of the Virginia Square Plaza Apartments. Residents weren't allowed back in until 5 a.m. Tuesday, according to WJLA.

The Arlington County Fire Department's hazardous materials team and bomb squad, the Alexandria hazmat team and the Virginia State Police assisted local officers.

"The first responders, they respond to anything and everything that's out there. The professionalism they showed the other night was second-to-none," Taylor said. "That professionalism and that coordinated response is why no one was injured and no one was affected by it."

Common dangers associated with meth labs are the possibility of fire — or even explosions — and fumes or vapors. Fire is "very common," Taylor said, and the fumes or vapors can be toxic and corrosive. Depending on the methodology, the fumes can travel up or down or along the ground level of the lab.

Once suspects are in custody, hazmat teams clear the area to make it safe for detectives to collect evidence and continue their investigation.

For some Arlington responders, Monday's call was something of a rarity. Police Detective Chris Feltman said it was his first meth lab case in nearly 20 years on the force. Capt. Gregg Karl said in his 12 with the Arlington County Fire Department, he had trained for such situations but had only heard stories of local firefighters actually being confronted by one.

"I commend very much the Arlington County hazmat team, and the Arlington County Police Department," said Taylor, who is responsible for the area between Richmond and Washington, D.C. "They did a very smart thing by not only isolating the immediate area but also evacuating the floor that it was on and the adjacent floors."

He continued: "When you're dealing with a multi-family dwelling like they had the other evening … It's really the unknown that causes all of these precautions to be taken. Because they don't know what materials are in there or what kind of processes have been used."

Taylor, who declined to talk about specifics in the ongoing investigation, said generally a "lab" could consist of anything from a small plastic bottle to a sophisticated setup.

Further, the methods and ingredients to make illegal narcotics have changed over the years, he said, in part due to state and federal laws that have made it more difficult to buy such items.

Large cities, simply by having more retail outlets than rural areas, present more opportunities for those trying to acquire the components of manufacturing narcotics. And a black market is more likely to exist in a metropolis than a small town.

When emergency responders confront a suspected meth lab, it's best to err on the side of caution because of all of those variables, Taylor said.

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