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Burn units see increase in drug lab fire victims

NASHVILLE -- At a conference on the scourge of methamphetamine, one item on the agenda was a tour of a seemingly unlikely place: a burn unit.

Legislators, doctors, social workers, and law administrators -- including the federal government's second highest-ranking drug official -- walked the halls of Vanderbilt University Medical Center regional burn unit, where seven of the 20 patients were injured by fires and explosions in clandestine meth labs.

Vanderbilt doctors told Joseph Keefe, deputy director of the Office on National Drug Control Policy, and the other participants that meth cases are increasingly common and are driving up state medical expenditures. The costs of treating critically injured burn victims typically exceed $10,000 a day each -- and most meth patients don't have health insurance.

''As bad as this may sound, as a burn doctor I almost wish another drug, one less volatile that doesn't regularly explode during the manufacturing process, would come down the pike to overtake the popularity of meth," said the center's director, Dr. Jeff Guy.

Standing in the doorway of one patient's room Tuesday, Guy told Keefe that the man had spent 45 days in a hospital from an October meth blast and ''has gone out and blown himself up again."

The man, Guy said, has been in the burn unit about 30 days from the second injury and his medical costs to date total about $240,000. He said such victims often end up collecting disability.

Meth is also hurting innocents, Guy said. A child was severely burned inside a trailer where someone cooking meth had lined interior walls with plastic to trap the odorous, toxic fumes, he said.

Keefe described what he saw in the burn unit as devastating.

Methamphetamine is an addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system and is cooked from over-the-counter ingredients. Tennessee leads the nation in meth lab seizures and accounts for three-quarters of such busts in the South.

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