by Pia K. Hansen
Consider this scenario: A guy is cooking up a batch of meth at his house. He's mixing up lye, muriatic acid, ephedrine from cold medication and a few other chemicals, and things are going well -- nothing is blowing up, nothing is catching on fire. He ends up with a nice little batch.
True or false: When our fictional meth cook sends his children to school the next morning, the students sitting next to them are at high risk for developing health problems because of meth residue on the children's clothes. Answer: False.
True or false: When he's eventually busted and a state-contracted cleanup company comes out to decontaminate the house, the workers worry most about the meth residue. Answer: False.
Surprised? Well, so are a lot of people when their meth myths are exploded.
The good news is that the number of meth labs discovered in Spokane County has dropped slightly. Meanwhile, however, large sums of public money are still being spent on cleaning up and decontaminating the sites as well as the people involved in the labs.
At about half of the meth labs that are busted, officers find children under the age of 18. Depending on the circumstances, the children are often removed from the home.
Anyone taken into custody from a meth lab is decontaminated by the fire department's hazardous materials team, using a process that involves being showered down, naked, in a special tent set up at Fire Station One. Their clothes are often destroyed. The firefighters who handle the decontamination are wearing full protective gear -- like something out of the X-Files. It can be a traumatic experience for everyone involved, for firefighters as well as children.
The public perception is that decontamination has to be done to prevent people who live at meth labs from contaminating their surroundings with meth residue.
Apparently the public perception is wrong. But it won't surprise many people to learn that the elaborate method of decontamination has another purpose: to protect against lawsuits.
"The children are being decontaminated because of a perceived liability for the health department and the emergency workers and whoever else they come into contact with, not because they are contaminated with meth," says Mike LaScuola, an environmental health specialist and chemical/physical hazards advisor in the Environmental Health Division of the Spokane Regional Health District. "If someone took a handful of meth and threw it at your eyes, I'm sure it would sting and burn, but there wouldn't be any lasting effects. Same goes for the kids: If I see a toddler teething on a windowsill at a lab site, I'm much more concerned about the lead paint on the sill than I am about any meth residue."
Capt. Bruce Moline, who works for the Spokane Fire Department's hazmat team and is involved in the decontamination effort that takes place at Fire Station One, doesn't necessarily agree.
"We decontaminate the person for any substance that could be potentially harmful to someone -- that being the chemicals used for meth production or the byproducts from the meth production or any residue," he says. "If a child had actual meth residue on his or her clothes, could that harm other children? Sure. I'm sure that could happen."
Moline does agree that the volatile chemicals used for cooking meth are a huge health risk.
"I don't think [meth cooks] are unaware of the risks with these things -- it's more that they are willing to risk anything because the drug is so horribly addictive," he says. "To me, that's the real problem. They'll mix anything, do anything, to make the drug because they want it so badly."
Moline says that this year so far, Station One has decontaminated 26 incidents -- some involve more than one person. In 2001, Moline says, they had a total of 31 incidents, and he's expecting to reach that number by the end of the year.
A decontamination takes about one hour to complete for a crew of three to four people.
"Cost-wise, when you take into consideration the personnel hours, that would be about $80 per incident," says Moline.
That's a total bill of $2,080 picked up by the fire department, not including the thousands of dollars invested in special protective gear, tents and air supply equipment.
"Yes, we pay the bill. But it's all financed by taxpayers, so you are really the ones paying for this. Don't forget that," Moline says.
LaScuola maintains that decontamination is more of a hygiene issue than anything else.
"At these lab sites, children's clothes are not always washed, their rooms aren't always cleaned, the conditions these people live under are horrendous," he says. "But there is no health-based standard for meth. A health-based standard is based on the fact that people get sick at a given level. As soon as someone can show me conclusive evidence that these kids can contaminate anything, we'll take that into consideration."
What remains a huge health hazard, however, is the chemicals used to make meth as well as the general conditions of most meth lab sites.
"Once the lab has been rendered, the only thing that is left is a place that has been, to coin a phrase, completely meth-abused," says LaScuola. "It's a completely unsanitary site, often with human excrement, trash and syringes with blood that can transmit diseases all over the place." The transmission of STDs and other blood-borne diseases are the biggest concern, he adds.
Kipp Silver, president of Able Cleanup Technologies in Spokane -- a state-certified cleanup contractor -- agrees.
"The worst part about the cleanup job is not the meth itself -- the worst part is the syringes. Meth users will sometimes inject half a syringe full of meth, then extract the plunger and fill the last half of the syringe with blood -- when you have a bunch of those laying around you have to be really careful," says Silver, who cleans up labs in four states.
So far, all the cleanups Silver has supervised have worked out without injury to his staff. A full cleanup job can run anywhere from $800 to $12,000.
"Sometimes we have to climb over three or four feet of garbage to get into the house at all. We wear our full protective gear -- gloves, air supply and steel boots," he explains. "You don't just press the garbage down with your hands -- you have to be very careful. This is a job where you don't want to become complacent."
Meth Numbers -- The number of meth labs being busted in Spokane County has declined over the last year. The Spokane Sheriff's Department has responded to 63 labs and dumpsites so far this year, compared to 104 at the same time last year. That includes unincorporated Spokane County and the city of Spokane Valley. In the City of Spokane, meth arrests totaled 523 in 2001 and 410 in 2002.
Sheriff's Department spokesman Cpl. Dave Reagan cautions against reading too much into the decreasing numbers.
"One should always remember that the cooks perhaps have gotten better at what they do, making it harder for us to find them," he says.
The Spokane County Meth Action Team has focused exclusively on getting a handle on the lab problem, because the labs pose by far the biggest risk to the public -- not because meth residue injures people, but because the labs have a tendency to blow up or catch fire.
"There was a real effort to squash the meth problem, especially the labs. But people are exposed to meth residue a lot more than they think, and there is very little fallout from that," says LaScuola.
By "fallout," LaScuola means emergency room visits by people reporting symptoms that somehow can be linked directly to meth. But there are no increases in those reports, not even among children. Pediatricians and emergency room staff report seeing a lot of profound neglect, mainly psychological and nutritional, among the children who grow up in meth labs. In addition, there are many health problems in infants born to mothers who use meth.
But hospital personnel see very few incidents where meth residue or the drug itself has caused lasting harm to anyone -- except of course to the drug users who inject, smoke or snort it.
In 2001, 91 meth-related events -- what most people would call injuries -- were reported to the Washington State Department of Health, with Spokane County reporting the highest number of incidents at 22.
A total of 66 people were injured during these events, with police officers and other emergency personnel typically suffering respiratory irritation from chemical fumes.
Among meth cooks, 19 were injured by fires or explosions involving the chemicals they were using to make meth. Three children were injured as well, typically suffering respiratory irritation caused by the chemicals stored in their home. One suffered chemical burns and eye and skin irritations after being exposed directly to a bucket containing a mixture of lye and toluene. Not a single person reported an injury caused by meth residue.
The Department of Ecology is in charge of removing chemicals from lab sites. So far, in 2003, Ecology has responded to 86 meth incidents in Spokane, city and county.
"The cost of removal of chemicals from a lab or a place where chemicals have been dumped is, on average, $700," says Sheryl Hutchinson, spokeswoman for the State Department of Ecology in Olympia. "This is down from more than $1,000 per site just a couple of years ago. We have gotten a lot better at doing this in a cost-effective way by bundling the labs and making fewer trips to the dump."
The number of meth sites Ecology deals with peaked in March 2001 at a little more than 200 statewide during that month alone. In September 2003, that number was slightly over 125.
The total budget for cleanups has remained pretty steady over the past couple of years, says Hutchinson. In the first half of 2003, Ecology responded to 818 lab and dump sites, reaching a total cost of $572,600. By the end of this year, the total cost is expected to be close to $1 million.
It's the Law -- Regardless of whether you believe meth residue is harmful, the cleanup of a meth site is mandated by state law.
"A long time ago, prior to the mid-'90s, the method used for meth manufacturing used heavy metals and extremely dangerous solvents, leaving poisonous gas levels in these homes that made them exceptionally toxic," explains LaScuola. "Everything went into motion, and based on that we passed a state law that calls for cleanup after these labs. But then the meth manufacturing method changed to a very simple acid-based reaction, and today the real hazard from these labs is not the residue -- it's fire, explosion and irritants."
A busted meth lab is still tested for meth residue by a state-certified contractor.
Last year, 0.5 micrograms of meth residue per square meter was reason enough for the Spokane Regional Health Department to "post" the house, declaring it unfit for human habitation until after it has been cleaned up by a state-certified contractor. Homeowners are required to pay for state-madated cleanups.
This year, that level was lowered to 0.1 micrograms per square meter.
"We have no information to substantiate that those levels of meth or meth residue create adverse effects in people," says LaScuola. "The cleanup standard for meth is based on our ability to accurately test for it and achievably clean it up."
The level of meth residue has become a convenient measure and trigger for cleanups and decontamination, while having little or nothing to do with the drug itself.
"Back when the state law was passed, we had no hindsight. We have a duty to protect the public, and I think we've done a good job of that, especially compared to other states," says LaScuola. "That's why cleanups are important. We have a lot better hindsight now, and we realize some things are more hazardous than others. I'd say this about the meth issue: If you move into a new place, give it a good cleaning and [make sure] there's nothing in there that can harm you."
Publication date: 12/11/03