From ricin to picric acid to radioactive monkey urine, Phil Ambrose has dealt with some seriously intense substances. As a Fire Captain/Hazardous Materials Specialist/Paramedic in Southern California, he's developed a stomach for contending with situations that would make any ordinary person run like hell.
After completing his degree in mechanical engineering, he got his start working with hazardous materials because he wanted to be able to work outside and he wasn't averse to dealing with really gross stuff. He is the founder of HazMat Nation and the inventor of HazSim, a hazardous materials training system for first responders.
VICE talked to him between emergency calls to find out more about radioactive monkey urine because what the fuck?
VICE: Why hazmat?
Ambrose: Like anything in first response, you've got to have a strong stomach and compassion for people having a bad day. I was used to gross stuff because I was a volunteer search dog handler with the sheriff's department. One of my things included body recovery, so by the time I became a fireman I'd been around a whole lot of dead bodies and body parts and it didn't bug me. It's probably one of my skills that you can't put on a resume—a strong stomach with gross stuff. I kind of fell into [hazmat] and started enjoying it. It's not easy. It's an icky job, and you're wearing lots of protective equipment so it's hot and uncomfortable. What do you have to wear?
There's four levels of HazMat garment. ABCD. D would be your work clothes that you don't wear home. Level C is splash protection—a suit like the ones you saw when the ebola outbreak hit—skin protection. It will keep you dry on a rainy day, but not really, because you'll sweat like crazy—it doesn't breathe. It could include a face mask or respirator. Level B is like level C but with the highest level of respiratory protection. Level A includes vapor protection, the fully encapsulated suit, a moonsuit with a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) filled with compressed air. It's not just splash protection, it protects you from the nasty of nastiest vapors. But set something on fire and that suit is going to be useless to you—it will start to melt. There's almost more potential for heat-stroke or tripping and falling than what can go through the suit.
What was your first job?
I dealt with radioactive monkey urine from a simian research facility at University of California, Davis. The monkeys looked happy to me, but they were testing something on them that caused their urine to be radioactive. With radioactive waste, it depends on how powerful it is and what the half-life is—half-lives can last anywhere from a few seconds to trillions of years. So we'd put it into a drum to decay and, in our case, decay was a little over two years for the isotopes we would decay (10 half-lifes). So you take that big drum, you'd fill it up, and two years later, test it and retest it to make sure it was gone. Chemically, it was fine. Though there was a time when that stuff would just go down the drain. Tell me about the grossest thing you've ever handled.
There were some materials where, if you weren't wearing the stuff and you spilled this on your skin, you would be in trouble. Like hydrofluoric acid, which has the reputation as the bone-seeker because it will leech the calcium out of your bones and liquefy them. A strong acid can burn you, this one is particularly worse. We also had crazy mixtures of some things that really shouldn't have been mixed. We'd also work with these drums of radioactive medical waste from research labs. I reached in to grab a bag and there was a pipette tube—a glass straw they draw samples with—and it went straight into my pinky. It didn't hurt much, but it IS a drum full of radioactive medical waste. So I thought, oh, this is great. At the time, we weren't even wearing kevlar gloves because there wasn't supposed to be any glass in there. So we're trying to find out where this drum came from and sure enough, they found it might have come from an AIDS research lab. So you're thinking, great, radioactive AIDS medical waste is now in my bloodstream. Which it wasn't—it came back as something animal-related, and the test came back fine.
When you are a hazmat worker you get medically monitored, or at least should, and my employer did all those required. Anyhow, I was tested for several metals including lead. The blood tests showed I should be in renal failure. Several doctors came in to the exam room and stared, let me know it must be a bad test, and they took more blood and rushed it to the lab. The new test came back clean but that night I tossed and turned with all sorts of pain I never had.
Does any material give you pause?
Radiation in the gnarly amounts can be bad, but overall pretty easy since it stays contained. We cannot see it with our eyes or smell it but we do have meters to detect it. But when you're dealing with exposed source radiation, there isn't a suit that you just put on. It's not like there's a shark suit made out of lead—you couldn't move.
Probably the gases with explosive flame potential and the shock sensitive stuff make me nervous. Reactives and flammables give you more pause because they can either have explosive fire or explode, two bad but different things.
What drugs do you typically see in hazmat?
It's largely regional. The big one now that's ramping up is butane honey oil extraction. The most common thing they use is butane—these little hand-held things that look like hairspray bottles. But butane is flammable. Butane contained in a vessel is explosive. The butane is not the drug but the gas of choice in a process to extract honey oil from marijuana. If not done carefully, it can cause explosions. Gas in enclosed area, meets ignition source, boom.
With meth, drug manufacturers kept becoming more efficient. There are less and less full-blown meth labs, partly because they came up with more inventive ways to make it. With one-pot meth they take a 32 oz. Powerade bottle—materials found in lithium batteries, phosphorus from match strike plates, and so on. I'm not exactly giving the recipe but by respect I never write the ingredients. Anyhow, they are all reasonably easy to obtain items. All in one container, they shake it up and do the procedure. So they'll be driving around in cars, they'll be walking around the aisles of Walmart (which is what happened a couple of months ago), making this stuff. So if they're making it in their car, they're driving along and then they throw the leftover out on the side of the road. So you have this Powerade bottle with this substance in it—there still could be some stuff in it that could react and explode. Not a high explosive, but explode enough that if a child picks it up and shakes it it could knock some fingers off. There's a thing called the hook that we use for house fires - it's a long pole with a hook on the end of it. Florida firefighters in particular--they put a razor blade at the end of one of the hooks, just for when they get one of these they can reach out and pop it and render it safe. They also use mineral oil to render the reactive metal safe—lithium, like sodium metal, is water reactive and can be safely managed in mineral oil.
How has the industry changed?
Pre 9/11, hazmat was still directed to stuff going down the road. Then 9/11 happened, and now it's kind of a federal safety issue. My hazmat squad—we rolled in the other day to a diesel fuel spill at a post office. But we could also go out tonight on a chemical weapons attack. We are prepared.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and style.
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