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Methamphetamine Pollution

Congress considers funding research to help guide the cleanup of illicit labs

March 28, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 13

A sample of methamphetamine crystals.
A sample of methamphetamine crystals.

They gather their raw materials. Cold medicines. Drain cleaner. Camp stove fuel. Lithium batteries. Matchbooks. Anhydrous ammonia, filched from a farm's fertilizer supply.

These illicit drugmakers bring the ingredients to a residence, a hunting cabin in the woods, a motel room, or, in one recent case in Georgia, the men's room of a K-Mart. Following one of two main "recipes" learned through observing others or easily found on the Internet, they concoct a steaming brew that renders the profitable street drug methamphetamine.

Known as meth, speed, ice, crank, or quartz, this illegal substance is a powerful stimulant of the central nervous system and can be swallowed, smoked, snorted, or injected.

The noxious stew that produces meth also yields by-products that can harm those who have no connection with manufacturing or using this substance. Too often, meth gets cooked up in homes where children are present, and the youngsters are exposed to sundry hazardous chemicals. Law officers busting a meth lab breathe in fumes from the operations, too.

A meth "cook," as making a batch is called, also contaminates the building where it takes place, posing potential hazards to the next occupants even if the structure gets washed down. Those who synthesize meth often dump the waste products onto soils--sometimes on property miles from the site of the makeshift lab.

When authorities close down a clandestine meth site, there are no consistent guidelines for cleaning up the mess left behind. In fact, no one's quite sure what kinds of chemical waste are left in a building after a meth cook. And states vary in how they go about cleaning up former meth labs.

This contamination is a growing problem. In the past decade, thousands of makeshift meth labs have been found across the U.S. Rural areas in the nation's heartland, including Missouri and Tennessee, have had especially high numbers of meth lab busts in recent years, according to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) figures.

Congress is working to remedy this situation. Earlier this month, the House Science Committee approved a bill, H.R. 798, that would establish a federal research program at the Environmental Protection Agency on the health effects associated with meth labs. It would direct EPA to determine which chemicals are present and detectable at meth labs, study the adverse health effects at former and current meth labs, and evaluate the effectiveness of cleanup techniques.

THE LEGISLATION, which enjoys bipartisan support, would also direct EPA, in consultation with the National Institute of Standards & Technology, to draw up guidelines for states and localities to follow when cleaning up an illicit lab. The bill would authorize federal spending on this work of up to $3 million annually for EPA and $1.5 million annually for NIST in the next four years, though congressional appropriators would determine the actual funding level.

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who cosponsored H.R. 798, says: "We know a great deal about the direct risks associated with meth use, but we don't know much about the indirect effects of the drug, namely the contamination that remains after a meth lab is shut down.

"This is a serious issue," he continues, "because a typical meth lab is not some sterile laboratory environment with test tubes, beakers, and fancy equipment. Rather, it is generally an apartment, motel room, or other residence, which may be reoccupied by a family who is completely unaware that their home was once the site of a meth lab."

Boehlert's committee held a hearing on H.R. 798 on March 3. There, academics, law enforcement officials, and others told the panel about the need for the federal government to support research on meth lab cleanups.

One witness at the hearing, John W. Martyny, associate professor of medicine and an industrial hygienist at the National Jewish Medical & Research Center in Denver, has studied chemical exposures associated with clandestine production of meth. He was part of a research team that measured emissions while DEA chemists and agents conducted controlled methamphetamine cooks.

"Our research has indicated that very high levels of toxic chemicals are produced during methamphetamine cooks," he said in written testimony. "Hazardous chemical exposures can be expected to persist in rooms and buildings for an extended period of time."

One of the two major methods used by illegal drugmakers to synthesize meth involves anhydrous ammonia and a reactive metal, usually lithium or sodium, Martyny continued. This production pathway generates vapors that include solvents, hydrogen chloride, and methamphetamine aerosols, as well as caustic anhydrous ammonia.

A second meth production route uses red phosphorus, Martyny said. This process leads to significant exposures to solvents, phosphine, airborne iodine, hydrogen chloride, and aerosols of methamphetamine.

Since there are no fume hoods or other safety devices at most illicit labs, anyone near the cook will be exposed to these chemicals.

Airborne meth levels can reach as high as 5,000 g per m3 during a cook. This, Martyny said, "almost ensures that anyone in the vicinity of the cook will test positive for methamphetamine," including babies and children. Some children taken from homes that were used as meth labs may show permanent damage to their respiratory tracts and possibly to their nervous systems, he said.

Methamphetamine aerosols can deposit on surfaces inside a structure that are far from the actual cooking area, with levels as high as 16,000 g per 100 cm2 found in houses formerly used to produce the substance, Martyny continued. His research team has found houses with levels of meth as high as 300 g per 100 cm2 for as long as six months after the last cook.

"Virtually all items within the house, as well as all people, pets, toys, etcetera, become contaminated with methamphetamine," he said. In one of the controlled experiments with DEA, done at a hotel, Martyny's research team found that the walls, floors, ceiling, and carpeting of rooms adjoining the one used for the actual cook became "extremely contaminated."

The type of protective gear--if any--used by law enforcement officers and emergency responders entering a meth lab site varies across jurisdictions, Martyny said. In some areas, they don masks attached to air tanks and wear chemical-protective "moon suits" when they are in a meth lab, he said. Other jurisdictions use no special equipment. Yet others switch from air-supply tanks to face masks with filters after an initial assessment of the situation.

"These inconsistencies are due to a lack of information from scientifically based studies of the exposure risks," Martyny said.

This dearth of data leads to inconsistent medical treatment of those exposed to chemicals at meth labs, who often complain of burning in the eyes, nose, and throat, he said.

Then there is the waste generated by the illicit manufacture of meth. Robert R. Bell, president of Tennessee Technological University, said at the hearing that the process creates about 5 lb of hazardous waste for each pound of meth produced.

Gary Howard, sheriff of Tioga County, N.Y., told the committee that meth labs produce two types of waste: a solid sludge and a liquid. The meth makers often dump these wastes into sink, drains, or into the soil, he said.

Sherry Green, executive director of the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, told the committee that when it comes to cleanup of meth labs, states employ a wide spectrum of remediation practices. Some use minimal procedures, such as airing out the structure and allowing owners of the property to use household cleaners to remove residues. Other states follow detailed procedures, including a preliminary site assessment, specific decontamination processes, and follow-up testing, she said.

THE CLEANUPS can be costly. Bell said that, in Tennessee, removal and handling of evidence and hazardous waste from a meth lab seized by authorities can cost between $5,000 and $20,000 per site. And restoration of the site can cost tens of thousands of dollars more, he said.

Henry L. Hamilton, assistant commissioner for public protection at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, told the committee that sometimes, the cost of cleaning up a former meth lab site may exceed the market value of the property. This leaves the owner of the property--or the state, if it has seized the land--in the lurch financially.

Yet, Bell noted, "a baseline definition of what 'clean' is, in terms of remediating labs, is not available." Martyny added that the best ways to clean up a house or other structure after a meth cook remain unknown.

Bill sponsor and House Science Committee ranking member Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) says the research that H.R. 798 would authorize will help states address meth lab cleanup issues.

In addition, the bill would support research to develop field test kits that law enforcement officers could use to detect meth labs--and help them get search warrants more quickly. Bell said long-term research on meth detection technologies could lead to devices similar to smoke detectors that would emit signals if they sense airborne methamphetamine. These could be installed in homes, motels, or college dorms, he added.

A spokesman for Republicans on the Science Committee tells C&EN the prospects for H.R. 798 to move quickly through the House are very good, given the broad support from both Republicans and Democrats.

"It is a sensible, targeted bill," Boehlert says.


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