Rescuers hit by P-lab toxic fallout

By Mike Barrington -
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A security officer and police barred entry to the site of a suspected P-lab explosion and fire which destroyed a shed and utility vehicle at Pakotai. Photo/Michael Cunningham
A security officer and police barred entry to the site of a suspected P-lab explosion and fire which destroyed a shed and utility vehicle at Pakotai. Photo/Michael Cunningham

Four people who went to the aid of two men severely burned in a suspected P-lab explosion in Northland have reported sore throats, exhaustion and breathing difficulties - symptoms believed to be associated with exposure to the toxic chemicals.

The good Samaritans are on the mend, but a medical expert is urging them to seek an all-clear diagnosis from a doctor.

One of the burned men, 49-year-old Arthur Bruce Cornelius - who had been injured in previous P-lab explosions at Kaitaia and Kerikeri - died about 17 hours after the blast at Pakotai, 50km north-west of Whangarei, last Wednesday.

A 26-year-old Northland man who was with Mr Cornelius in the Pakotai shed blown apart by the explosion is being treated in the National Burn Centre at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland.

Kathy and Bruce Bartlett, who went to help when the explosion took place on the property next door to their lifestyle block, expected chemicals spread by the blast to have some effect on their health.

Mrs Bartlett knew there were contamination risks but didn't hesitate to help the two burned men, whose injuries she and and other neighbours described as "horrific".

"You have to do what you can," she said yesterday.

"We weren't decontaminated and both Bruce and I have had sore throats and felt tired and short of breath.

"People said we should be checked by a doctor, but we came right after three or four days."

Two other neighbours who helped with the burned men had similar symptoms later.

One of them, who asked not to be named, said he had quite severe chest congestion, lethargy, headaches and was wheezing at night.

He didn't go to a doctor because he had not long given up smoking tobacco and was unsure what was causing his condition.

Like the Bartletts, he had "come right" a few days after the blast.

Northland medical officer of health Dr Clair Mills yesterday said anyone who felt they had been exposed to chemicals used to make methamphetamine should seek medical advice. St Johns Northland district manager Tony Devaney said ambulance staff at Pakotai had followed St Johns' procedures to ensure the two burned men were decontaminated before treatment.

It is understood no specific decontamination of ambulance crews and firefighters was carried out at Pakotai because they were not considered to have been in contact with P-lab chemicals.

While no charges have yet been laid, police say the blast came from an accident in a clandestine laboratory making methamphetamine [P] in the shed.

Police detected six P labs in Northland last year.

Chemicals used in the labs include acetone, lead acetate, iodine, yellow and white phosphorous, methylamine, sulphuric and hydrochloric acid and toluene, an organic solvent sometimes containing benzene.

Symptoms of human contamination by P-lab chemicals include skin rashes, sore eyes and breathing difficulties.

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