One-hundred-thirty thousand dollars. That’s the average hospital cost of treating someone who has suffered burns in a meth lab fire—60% more than other burn patients. On top of that, most meth patients are uninsured.
Those figures come from an Associated Press survey of major hospitals in the country’s most active meth states, including Kentucky. Dr. Glen Franklin, medical director of the surgical intensive care unit and burn unit at University of Louisville Hospital, says there are several reasons why meth lab burns are more dangerous, starting with the chemicals involved.
Meth utilizes substances like lye, anhydrous ammonia, and ether. When these ingredients ignite, they can produce a fireball that consumes everything and everybody around it. Dr. Franklin says in addition to the damage done to a person’s skin, these meth lab fires can also do a tremendous amount of respiratory damage.
“One way you get a bad respiratory burn is by being in a closed-in environment, where there’s not good ventilation and you’re on top of the source that’s exploded," says Dr. Franklin. "Number two, you’re exposed to it for a long period of time, and when this occurs most people are intoxicated and already high on methamphetamine.”
According to research co-authored by Dr. Franklin, hospital costs are higher for meth burn patients because they require a higher use of critical care resources, like longer ventilation usage because of respiratory injuries. Meth patients also experience higher rates of skin grafting, where healthy skin is removed from one part of the body to replace severely burned and dead skin elsewhere.
“So the burns tend to be deeper," says Dr. Franklin. "You have the chemical component leaching into the skin that you’re trying to clean out after the burn. And it’s done in a very dirty environment, where people have chemicals all around, and it’s dirty and dusty. So these areas that are burned tend to have deeper burns, with a higher infection rate.”
Meth burns aren't just caused by heat and fire. A person can also be burned by extreme cold. Chris Thomasaon found that out the hard way.
“I was burned by some gas at one point, not actually fire," says Thomason, a Barren County native who used meth for seven years before giving it up.
One night, while cooking up some meth, he got a bit too close to the anhydrous ammonia.
“Anhydrous is a gaseous, liquid form of chemical that’s used in the manufacturing of meth. It’s a very cold substance. So I don’t know if you’d consider (my wound) a burn, or just frozen," says Thomason.
Thomason's injuries landed him in the hospital for several days, contributing to the burden placed on hospital burn units by meth cooks. According to the 2012 Associated Press survey, up to a third of patients in some burn units were hurt while making the drug.
Dr. Glen Franklin, with University of Louisville Hospital, says meth patients are rarely good patients. In other words, they usually don’t return for follow-up visits or take the time to properly apply new bandages to their wounds once they’re out of the hospital.
“These people disappear back into the community, and don’t come for follow-ups, and don’t usually follow the prescribed treatment plan, which can come back six months or eight months later with a problem that needs to be addressed because it wasn’t addressed at the beginning," he says.
And that, of course, can mean further—and more expensive—treatments down the line, contributing to the increasing hospital costs related to meth burn patients.
This story is part of our ongoing series of reports on the impact of meth abuse in our region. To see transcripts and hear audio archives of the other stories in our series, click on WKU Public Radio News at the top of this page, and then select Impact of Meth Series.