It sounds like something out of a George Romero movie, but it happened: in late 2009, the small rural Michigan town of Stanley was the epicenter of an outbreak of mania. Residents reported periods of intense euphoria, nervousness, and increased energy.

One group worked a spontaneous double shift at a tool and die factory. A mechanic reported employees breaking and bending tools during highly energized repair sessions. And, perhaps most tellingly, the community outreach center bathroom (long a source of cheap and discrete contraceptives) ran out, and then was vandalized by assailants wielding pipe wrenches.

The police and city government, while suffering from the effects themselves (patrol car rotations were briefly increased to 24 hours), nevertheless sought out a cause. Older residents were complaining of heart problems, after all, and the local hospital was overwhelmed with cases of exhaustion. Stanley authorities put out an appeal to the state government for assistance, but investigative teams were as clueless as anyone else.

An answer came, oddly enough, from the Michigan Bureau of Atmospheric Pollution Research. They had been measuring pollution levels in Detroit and elsewhere with equipment sensitive to the parts-per-billion level, and a mobile lab quickly noted that an unknown substance was present in the Stanley air in concentrations high enough to affect long-term residents through accumulation. It took another round of tests before the identity of the agent could be determined.

It was methyl alpha-methyl phenyl ethyl amine, better known as methamphetamine.

A former resident had once described the countryside around Stanley as “lit by the glow of exploding meth labs.” It turns out the claims were not hyperbole; the MBAPR, tracing the airborne particulate to its source, found a number of sites neat the city limits where destroyed or poorly constructed meth labs were smouldering. Each was putting out smoke laced with the drug; the incidents had gone unnoticed by a fire department obsessed with cleaning its engines three times a day.

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