The production, use, and sale of illegal methamphetamine is quickly becoming the number one drug crisis that law enforcement, drug enforcement, and public health agencies face today. Makeshift laboratories are found throughout the United States in houses, apartments, motels, trailers, sheds and motor vehicles.
Physical Effects of Exposure
Also referred to as meth, speed, crank, crystal or ice, is a Schedule II drug with little medical use and a high potential for addiction. Methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant that causes severe mood alterations, decreased appetite, paranoia, irritability, hallucinations and convulsions. Long-term effects of methamphetamine use include:
- kidney, heart and lung damage
- fundamental changes to brain chemistry and structure
- extreme psychological disorders
While the widespread use and sale of methamphetamine creates social and economic problems, production facilities cause lasting environmental harm. For every pound of meth produced, five to six pounds of toxic waste are left behind. Makeshift laboratories can be found throughout the United States in houses, apartments, motels, trailers, sheds and even automobiles. Based upon preliminary findings, some of the major environmental contaminants include battery acid, lye, drain cleaner, alcohols, hydrochloric acid, red phosphorus, iodine, lantern fuel, Volatile Organic Compounds ( VOC’s), explosives, and toxic metals. These are all dangerous environmental hazards that can persist in the soil and groundwater for years.
Possible Health Effects
Acute Exposure: It takes just a short period of time for acute chemical exposure to take effect and this could be very harmful to health.
- Methamphetamine labs can cause acute exposure which results in chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, lack of coordination, dizziness, burns of the skin, eyes, mouth and nose, as well as tissue irritation. It is even possible to die from acute exposure and these effects can take place right after a drug bust before the lab has been properly aerated.
- Less severe effects from a lower level of exposure include symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, nausea and headache. These symptoms can occur in people who entered the drug lab prior to it being cleaned and aired out after a bust. These symptoms will typically resolve in several hours after leaving the site of the chemicals.
Corrosive Effects: Substances that are corrosive can cause injury when they come into contact with the skin or when they are inhaled. These symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, skin burns, and chest pain.
Solvents: Solvents have the potential to irritate the skin, respiratory tract, and mucous membranes. In addition, they can cause the central nervous system to be compromised. Solvents are combustible and explosive, posing an inherent danger.
Chronic Exposure: Over a period of time, chronic exposure begins to take effect. This can happen over weeks, months, and even years. Chronic health typically includes a range of health effects such as brain damage, cancer, and damage to the kidneys and liver. Other known symptoms of chronic exposure include complications of pregnancy including miscarriage and birth defects.
The diversity of ingredients complicates remediation of these sites, and costs can range from $5,000 to $150,000. Property demolition is sometimes necessary. Sampling and abatement is performed by licensed professionals trained in hazardous substance handling and removal. When a methamphetamine lab is discovered or suspected, no one should enter the area without personal protective equipment. In addition, no one should rent, purchase, or occupy a former meth lab property unless cleanup is complete and testing shows no toxic residue remains. If you find suspicious containers or lab equipment, do not handle them yourself. Leave the area and contact your local law enforcement agency or fire department to secure the area. These properties require cleanup prior to rehabilitation.
Property owners, real estate agents and landlords who choose to clean up their own residences should seek guidance from local Departments of Public Health and law enforcement agencies on the chemical hazards and use of appropriate protective equipment. Many states require a licensed Professional Contractor to perform the site remediation. The clean up will generally proceed as follows: See the Oregon Drug Lab Program Flow Chart
- Removal of lab-related debris such as chemicals and containers. This may have already been done by Law enforcement. If not, the contractor must dispose of the material according to state and federal regulations.
- Air out the property. The contractor will normally air out for several days before cleaning. Good ventilation should continue throughout the clean up procedure.
- Remove and destroy absorbent materials. Residues and vapors from the cooking process impregnate carpets, furniture, and drapes, these items are normally sent to the landfill with documentation of their disposal.
- Professionally clean all hard surfaces. Walls, counters, floors, ceilings, etc. are porous and can hold contamination from the cooking process or from spilled chemicals. Deep cleaning or complete removal of these surfaces is required to remove residual trace of chemicals.
- Ventilation systems collect fumes and distribute them throughout a building. Heating and air conditioning vents, ductwork and filters become contaminated and must be removed and cleaned. Cleaning should also include the surfaces near system inlets and outlets.
- Plumbing collects waste products that give off fumes, and should be professionally cleaned. Toxic by-products generated during meth manufacture are often dumped down sinks, drains, and toilets. If you suspect a septic tank or yard may be contaminated, contact the local health department.
- Testing should be done to establish a record of remediation. If the initial cleaning was not successful, more extensive steps must be taken. For future liability, you may want to contact your insurance carrier for advice and assistance.
Neilson Research Corporation has extensive experience in site testing and provides photographic evidence and documentation, sample collection in accordance with state sampling protocols and certified analytical testing services to aid property owners with site restoration. In addition to the dwelling itself, the investigation of these properties may require an analysis of well water, septic systems and soil. To read more, visit the Office of Public Health drug lab cleanup web page at: https://public.health.oregon.gov/HealthyEnvironments/HealthyNeighborhoods/ClandestineDrugLabs/Pages/index.aspx
For information on how to protect your rental property against drug lab use, see: https://public.health.oregon.gov/HealthyEnvironments/HealthyNeighborhoods/ClandestineDrugLabs/Pages/rental.aspx
For more technical information regarding the health effects of methamphetamine use, visit: www.drugabuse.gov/Infofacts/methamphetamine.html
- Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, Building Codes Division and the Landlord Training Program: www.oregonbcd.org
- Oregon Alliance for Drug Endangered Children: www.oregondec.org
- US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) https://www.dea.gov/index.shtml
- The Office of National Drug Control Policy: http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov
- Partnership for a Drug Free America: www.drugfree.org
- NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards: www.cdc.gov/niosh
Click here for the drug lab clean-up flowchart.