Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
Debbie Dujanovic reportingJim Winder: "Policemen are not disposable. If we're injured in the line of duty, we deserve to be taken care of."
Financial help, or a full-on fight? Hundreds of meth labs, years of exposure, what happens to the officers now?
When an Eyewitness News Investigation uncovered that several are sick, some have died -- we also discovered another stress: financial.
Tonight, the number is growing. We've now confirmed: 40 of 58 Utah officers who investigated meth labs are sick, have cancer, or have died. Sent in without protective gear, exposed to toxic chemicals.
Now, another twist: quit, retire, too sick to work -- they may wind up without medical insurance.
For years she tried to hide it. Police Officer Kelly Nye Sterner. Her medical records told the story. A rare disease was taking over.
Gary Sterner: "She started going into liver failure, then kidney failure."
What caused it: her husband questions chemical exposure. Together they investigated meth labs in the early 90's, assigned to sort through toxic evidence.
Gary Sterner/ Former Narcotic Officer: "It would get so hard to breathe, we'd have to leave the building, get fresh air and come back. Of course our protective gear was a pair of gloves."
She died in January. Her disease forced her to give up police work. She lost her medical insurance benefit. To pay doctors bills, she used her credit cards.
Lt. Robbie Russo/ Former Narcotics Officer: "The scary thing is, there aren't any options. I need to work and I won't be able to make that choice to retire."
Lt. Robbie Russo believes meth lab exposures triggered his kidney cancer. If he quits the force he loses his medical insurance benefit.
Both these cases highlight a major dilemma for many Utah police officers who were exposed to meth labs, and are now sick. They can pay $500 to $700 a month to keep their medical insurance through their departments. Or, they can take on the system.
We found state law is putting them in a bind. If these officers file a claim for compensation, and coverage: the current law says they have to prove years of chemical exposures inside meth labs caused their diseases.
Dennis Lloyd represents Workers Compensation Fund.
Dennis Lloyd/ Workers Compensation Fund of Utah: "An injured worker may have to rely on scientific data based on factual reports of what occured in the drug bust, then turn to scientists and say, 'What would this worker have been exposed to as a peace officer that busted the meth lab?'"
Jim Winder/ Salt Lake County Deputy Sheriff's Federation: "You go to those you've served for many years and you say, 'I got this on the job.' And they say, 'Prove it. It's ridiculous.'"
Union Representative Jim Winder calls it a catch 22 for officers who were assigned to dismantle meth labs through the 80's & 90's ...without training and protective gear. Other colleagues agree:
Chief Terry Keefe/ Layton Police Dept.: "It ought to be addressed, in fairness to those that basically put their lives on the line and went into these situations."
Tom Dell'Ergo/ Former DEA Agent: "We should do everything we can to protect these men and women who were involved in clandestine labs."
Shawn Roberts/ Former Narcotics Officer: "I think they should be taken care of. They gave their health for their community."
Other states do it differently. In California - develop a certain disease, it's presumed you got in the line of duty. You're covered medically, financially, it's called "presumptive law."
Mike Meese/ Presumptive Law Expert: "Let us as a society step up and say, 'We have presumptive law. God forbid you get cancer. God forbid you get lung problems. But we are there to take care of you.'"
Senator Ed Mayne: "We need to come into the 21st century on this."
Utah Senator Ed Mayne says it's time local lawmakers see what's happening to these officers, who investigated meth labs.
Sen. Ed Mayne/ (D) Salt Lake County: "We need to recognize exposure to meth labs is now killing our law enforcement."
Even if they have to prove it, officers tell Eyewitness News they will pursue claims for compensation.
This is the topic on KSL-1160 on the Doug Wright Show Monday starting at 11 am.