Residential Meth Lab Dangers

Written by Robert E. Sheriff, CIH, CSP, President

The use of methamphetamines as an abused drug has risen dramatically in the last 10 years. The reasons are understandable: meth can be made from readily available materials found in drug stores, home improvement stores, and agricultural chemical supplies—by mail and the internet. It can be made in small quantities in a basement, garage, storage space, bathroom or bedroom in just a few hours. It doesn’t have to be smuggled in from Afghanistan or Columbia.

The dangers of residential meth lab cleanup are also as dramatic: fire explosions, pollution, short and long term health effects, contamination of homes, vehicles, children and law enforcement personnel.

In 2004, there were 17,170 meth lab “incidents” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration National Clandestine Laboratory Database. The greatest concentration of these meth labs is in the Midwest, apparently due to availability of the ingredient anhydrous ammonia, which is a commercial crop fertilizer. But these clandestine meth labs are appearing everywhere in the U.S.

Law enforcement personnel who perform seizures of these clandestine meth labs face significant dangers. This is also true of investigating officers who may be at a meth lab site for a significant period of time gathering evidence.

Exposure can result from inhalation or physical contact with a variety of known chemicals with known effects and a host of exposures to reactions that can occur from the chemicals used in meth cooks.

The probability that methamphetamine will contaminate a building where a cook has occurred is almost certain. It is also certain that contamination persists weeks, months, and possibly years after a meth cook or cooks have occurred. It is highly likely that methamphetamine contamination will occur in furniture, floors, walls, furnishings, clothing and personal items such as toys.

There has been no level of contamination considered safe since there is no research available on the effects on humans at low levels of methamphetamine.

Whether in an area where a cook or use has occurred, methamphetamine can readily become airborne both as a particulate and a vapor. It can thereafter settle on any flat surface and be picked up by passersby or re-aerosolized and inhaled. This is most important where toddlers and young children are present.

Practically anyone associated with a meth cook area—family, friends, law enforcement, custodial personnel, will have positive urine tests for methamphetamines.

An area can also be contaminated by smoking the drug. Although methamphetamine can be ingested or injected, the most likely method of use is smoking. Tests by the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Colorado have shown that as few as 5 “smokes” can result in equaling the 0.1ug/100cm2 clean up level; resulting in exposure to other occupants especially young children – who crawl on floors, touch everything, and often have their hands in their mouths.

Allowable levels of methamphetamine after cleanup are not based on health effects since there is little known on the subject of low level exposure. The levels are set based on limits of detection. The State of Washington recently reduced its allowable level from 5 ug/ft2 to 0.1 ug/100cm2 for a surface wipe test. Colorado has set a limit of 0.5 ug/ft2 for a surface test. The limit for air samples is 0.1 ug/M3.

Atlantic Environmental, Inc. has the ability to perform air sampling, wipe samples and suggest the levels of personal protection required in a particular situation. We can also recommend clean up requirements, disposal of chemicals and occupancy decisions where methamphetamine was smoked or otherwise used, or where meth cooks have occurred.