BY JOE NAPSHA | Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016, 9:39 a.m.
An Irwin woman is accused of endangering neighbors in her townhouse complex when she tried to get high by cooking a toxic chemical with nasal spray, which police say released noxious fumes.
Brenda Lee Everett, 51, of 10th Street was charged by Irwin police on Tuesday with risking a catastrophe, causing a catastrophe and recklessly endangering others.
She is in the Westmoreland County Prison on $75,000 bail.
Chief Roger Pivirotto said police believe Everett was cooking muriatic acid, a highly corrosive mineral acid used to clean masonry, with the active ingredient in nasal spray to extract that chemical, then mixed the purified crystalline substance in a drink.
Muriatic acid can be combined with pseudoephedrine found in cold medications to manufacture methamphetamine, according to the website for New Hope Recovery Center, an addiction treatment facility in Chicago.
“In its purest form, in its higher concentration, she would get high off it,” said Pivirotto, noting he had not previously come across the use of that combination of chemical and nasal spray.
Neither of the substances is illegal, Pivirotto said, and the operation is not considered a meth lab.
Cooking a solution with hydrochloric acid and an over-the-counter medication is not uncommon for people seeking a drug high, said Scott Blacker, vice president for development at Livengrin Foundation, a nonprofit addiction-recovery center based in Bensalem.
The drug rehab center typically treats people addicted to heroin and opioids, not nonprescription medicines, Blacker noted.
The Westmoreland County Hazardous Materials Team found a gallon jug of muriatic acid, as well as numerous empty packages of Benzedrex, an over-the-counter nasal spray medication. A box of the nasal spray was found on the doorstep of Everett's home, Pivirotto said.
Everett was arrested after an investigation that began Monday into the cause of the natural gas leak at Penglyn Townhouses, the six-unit building where she lives. A resident in an adjacent unit smelled natural gas, and a Columbia Gas Co. employee determined it was coming from Everett's home. The worker found a crack in the flexible connector that supplies natural gas to the water heater and furnace, so he shut off the gas supply, said Sarah Perry, a company spokeswoman.
On Tuesday, two repairmen sent by the owner of Penglyn Townhouses, LRG Rentals of Jeannette, noticed a strong smell of an unknown chemical that made one worker dizzy as he repaired the gas line.
A LRG Rentals spokesman could not be reached for comment.
“When the rental company realized something was not kosher, they contacted us” at about 10:30 a.m., Pivirotto said.
Workers noticed that metal pipes in the basement were unusually rusted and corroded, police said in the criminal complaint filed against Everett. The cause has not been determined.
“There is no connection between the cooking of muriatic acid and corrosion of natural gas pipes,” Perry said.
Using electronic detecting devices, Irwin firefighters detected abnormal levels of hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and oxygen in the air, said Pivirotto, who likened the odor to vinegar.
The county hazmat team also conducted tests in the townhouse.
Police don't know how long Everett allegedly was cooking the acid and nasal spray ingredients at her home, but a neighbor last month complained about a smell of natural gas, Pivirotto said.
The building was evacuated Tuesday afternoon, but residents were permitted to return that night. The landlord offered them lodging in a local motel, the police chief said.
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer