POLICE are concerned that organised crime syndicates are setting potentially deadly mantraps to try to protect their lucrative amphetamine laboratories hidden around Victoria.
The head of the clandestine laboratory squad, Detective Inspector Ken Ashworth, said police had uncovered a record 112 labs in 2009 - a jump of nearly 600 per cent in seven years.
He said investigators and forensic experts now checked for booby traps during raids and reconnaissance missions because syndicates often set devices to secure the secret production bases. The traps include trip wires, doors rigged to explode when opened, and acid spread on surfaces to cause severe chemical burns. Police say the gangs:
■Can turn rental properties and hotel rooms into temporary labs in just hours.
■Create a massive environmental risk by dumping dangerous chemicals in drains, rivers, public parks and on roadsides.
■Have caused several potentially fatal explosions.
■Have left homes uninhabitable due to chemical pollution.
In October, four people were hospitalised after a speed lab exploded in a rented flat in Rathmines Road, Hawthorn. The building was badly damaged. Last month three people were hurt in a lab blast in a Preston hotel room.
Detective Inspector Ashworth said police were receiving more tip-offs from the public and the chemical industry. ''We think there has been an increase in the number of labs … but we also think we are becoming better at locating them.''
He said a large lab could produce up to 10 kilograms of speed in 24 hours with a wholesale value of more than $30,000.
''Those convicted of producing large commercial quantities of these drugs have been sentenced to up to 15 years' jail. The hefty sentences reflect the sophistication of their operations,'' he said.
Drugs that have been produced in the backyard labs include amphetamine (speed), MDMA (Methylene-dioxy-methamphetamine or ecstasy), crystal meth (ice), and liquids such as GBH (gamma hydroxybutyrate) and, more recently, GBL (gamma butyrolactone).
Inspector Ashworth said drugs made in a clandestine lab produced four to 10 times more chemical by-product than drugs made in legal labs, with the waste always illegally dumped. ''Many of those involved don't know the risks.''
Exposure to the chemicals can lead to cancer, respiratory illness, brain damage, kidney damage and skin irritations. Police from the squad are equipped with breathing equipment and protective clothing when they conduct raids and have full medical checks once a year.
''Many of the offenders seem unaware of the short-term risks from explosions and fires and the long-term risks they are taking with their health. They are also endangering the public,'' Inspector Ashworth said.
February 1, 2010