States confront meth-lab threat to environment

Do-it-yourself labs can turn homes into hazmat zones. Some US states have enacted laws to address the risks.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Hotel rooms, apartment complexes, and homes aren't your typical toxic waste sites. But then, methamphetamine isn't your typical drug.

The drug – which makers often cook up in their kitchens using household chemicals and tools – is potent enough to transform homes into hazmat zones. When law officers bust a meth lab, the drugmaking materials are carted away. But what happens next to such former sites – numbering more than 100,000 across the country – varies dramatically.

Some states, led by Colorado, have enacted tough regulations that require former lab sites to undergo a formal safety assessment – and more cleanup, if needed – before they can be reinhabited. The laws are prompted by the extreme toxicity of the chemicals used to cook meth, and suspicions about the long-term effects of chemical remnants in the air and on surfaces. Other states mandate home sellers to disclose the presence of former meth labs.

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The patchwork of state approaches reflects the uneven spread of the drug, the potential costs of cleanup, and concerns about setting safety standards in the absence of definitive scientific research, experts say.

"Until we fully understand what the potential health effects can be, we feel that it's better that states are more proactive as opposed to reactive," says Shawn Arbuckle with the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver. Better safe than sorry, he adds.

Cooking meth just once contaminates a building with traces of acids and iodine in the air, as well as large amounts of meth on surfaces ranging from sofas to ventilation ducts, according to research done at National Jewish. Hydrochloric acid is an irritant to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract, and iodine can trigger asthmatic reactions, says Mr. Arbuckle.

Business contractors have sprung up to assess and decontaminate former meth labs. Basic cleanup involves hauling away carpets, furniture, drapes, and other items that can absorb airborne particles. Then all surfaces are thoroughly cleaned, including ceilings and walls. Sometimes dry wall must be replaced.

Meth Lab Cleanup Co., based in Texas, charges about $300 to $500 for a consultation, assessment, and site sampling. Basic decontamination costs from $4,000 to $6,000 for a modest home. But expenses can quickly skyrocket when further work is required.

Joseph Mazzuca, the company's operation director, says cooks sometimes disconnect stove vents to prevent neighbors from smelling suspicious fumes. Instead the vent pipe is stuffed into the insulation, creating a bigger mess. He's also had to move a home to remove topsoil contaminated by dumped chemicals. While he has yet to see a well contaminated by dumping, he has seen PVC piping melted away.

Three-quarters of his calls are to sites that never involved law enforcement, suggesting there are many labs beyond the 100,000 reported to the Drug Enforcement Agency since 1998.

"Our estimate is that there are about a million and a half meth labs in America, and less than 1 percent of them have been decontaminated," he says.

He's noticed other disturbing trends. He sees children's clothing or toys at most sites. And 75 percent of labs are rentals. "Typically landlords, especially on the bad side of town, don't worry about [cleanup] so much unless there's a law," he says.

Increasingly, states are addressing that, particularly those that have dealt with the problem the longest, such as in the Midwest and West. Colorado has been at the forefront, forcing property owners not only to have the mess cleaned up but to adhere to a very specific set of procedures and testing requirements.

Northeastern states – which have yet to see high numbers of home labs (see map, page 2) – have been slower to adopt new laws.

Connecticut released a new set of nonbinding guidelines following a bust last year of two labs in East Hampton. After federal authorities came and went, the landlord of one of the properties, a small ranch house on a wooded road, began his own cleanup. He then sold the home, according to a local public health official and a former resident, without notifying the health department or telling the buyer beforehand of the existence of the former lab. (The attorney involved in the sale declined to comment, and neither the current owner nor the selling landowner could be reached.)

Connecticut still does not compel an owner to decontaminate except in serious cases, and property sellers still are not required to disclose former meth labs – a requirement now in 14 states.

"There is not uniformity across all of the states, and frequently people look to the federal government to step in at that point [to put] out something that can serve as a standard for all states to at least consider," says Kevin Teichman, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA aims to offer standards by 2011 tied to demonstrated health risks. Arbuckle says that determining what is a healthy level of exposure over a long period of time will require more research – something Mr. Teichman says the agency is pushing.

Federal money is also going to assessments and cleanups. The EPA has revised its definition of brownfields to include former meth labs, though grants can go only to groups such as nonprofit organizations, not homeowners. The DEA offers free training and equipment to first responders and shoulders much of the bill for a contractor to remove lab materials whenever called to a scene.

"Technically the contractor has cleaned it out," says Steve Robertson, a special agent assigned to DEA headquarters. "If it was my property I would rip out the carpet, I would scrub the floors, I would repaint everything, because these ... are very hazardous chemicals."

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