A toxic trail

Contamination caused by cooking is wide-spread

The potential for an explosion is only one of the risks of cooking methamphetamine. Other repercussions can last years and impact property values, health and the environment.

Nearly anyone can cook meth. Recipes are readily available via the Internet and most of the ingredients can be purchased at any grocery store.

It's not that hard to find the ingredients.

They're not that expensive.

But the impacts can be fatal.

According to Craig Police Sgt. Bill Leonard, toxic fumes and toxic byproducts are inevitable during the meth cooking process. Both contaminate soil, groundwater, the air, furniture, flooring, air vents and walls.

During the meth cooking process, vapors are given off that can spread to or be absorbed by nearby materials.

"Once you have vaporized chemicals, they get absorbed by anything porous," said Richard Hunt, general manager of Risk Removal, a hazardous materials abatement company with offices in Denver and Fort Collins.

A person doesn't need to be smoking meth to be affected by the drug, Leonard said.

"The byproducts of meth are extremely dangerous. There are serious physical implications down the line, even with second-hand inhalation," he said.

According to the Koch Crime Institute, people who come into contact with the toxic byproducts of smoking or cooking the drug are susceptible to headaches, nausea, dizziness, confusion, breathing difficulties, skin and eye irritation and burns. That doesn't just include first responders or those living in the lab. Those who move into a place where meth was cooked -- even months after the fact -- are sensitive to the toxic effects.

Officials know there are lingering health problems from coming into contact with the byproducts of cooking meth, but there is little research.

"Preliminary reports are just scary," Leonard said.

According to studies done by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, meth residues may be fatal to young children.

Benzene, an ingredient in some meth recipes, is known to cause cancer. Other chemicals used have caused decreased mental function, anemia, kidney damage and birth defects.

The potential health effects depend on:

n The specific chemical to which the person was exposed.

n How much chemical to which the person was exposed.

n How long a person is exposed.

n The health of the person exposed.

According to officials with the North Metro Task Force, the manufacture of every pound of methamphetamine creates 5 to 6 pounds of toxic waste. Cooks often pour leftover chemicals and toxic sludge down household drains, into toilets, into storm drains or directly onto the ground.

Meth cooks get creative in ways to dispose of the waste. The North Metro Task Force has tracked several "solutions" cooks have found including:

n Driving around with it in their cars looking for a place to dump it.

n Tossing it alongside roads and highways.

n Dumping it in parks and forests.

n Burying it, which causes it to leach into the groundwater.

n Flushing it into the sewer system.

n Leaving it for the garbage collectors.

n Leaving it in hotels and public storage facilities.

These byproducts are flammable, explosive, toxic and in some concentrations, lethal.

Mike Frazier, supervisor at Craig's wastewater treatment plant, said he's not seeing a problem with toxic water flowing into the plant -- that's probably because millions of gallons of wastewater flow into the plant and any toxic pollutants would be extremely diluted.

"When you consider the small amount (of meth) produced in a home, you're talking a million gallons a day of dilution. You're not going to see an effect from that," he said.

Water isn't tested for those toxins on the intake, but it is when it flows out and back into the river.

"The real problem is the disenfranchised who are willing to use meth," Frazier said. "That concerns me a lot more than what it will do to the sewers."

Though the toxins aren't showing up in pre-treated water, the solvents and other byproducts of meth can persist in soil or groundwater for years.

All stages of the cooking process involve flammable and highly toxic substances.

Cleaning house

Because methamphetamine is an emerging drug, there are no federal guidelines or regulations for cleaning property contaminated by meth byproducts. Some states have regulations, but Colorado is not one of them -- yet.

Cleanup has ranged from doing nothing to complete demolition.

That changed after the 2004 legislative session.

House Bill 1182, passed this session, requires the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to establish standards for cleanup of illegal drug laboratories.

States that have established cleanup guidelines recommend getting rid of all absorbent materials -- carpet, padding and drapes -- all accumulated dust and powder from the chemicals used in the cooking process.

Surfaces should be cleaned using an intensive cleaner followed by the application of a physical barrier -- paint, epoxy or polyurethane.

There are many companies that specialize in hazardous materials abatement, but none in Northwest Colorado.

That lack contributes significantly to the cost of cleanup, Hunt said.

He says the cost depends on several factors, including location and degree of contamination.

"Most abatement is extremely expensive because you need highly-trained workers and there's extreme oversight," he said.

The process can include pulling out all porous materials -- carpet, drapes, drywall, even some wood.

In many cases, Hunt said, the waste can be taken to a local landfill because the percentage of toxins is so low. In that case, the material is double bagged before it is dumped.

If the percentage of toxins is too high to be accepted into a local landfill, it has to be trucked to a facility in Utah or Arizona. Colorado has no facilities for toxic waste storage, Hunt said.

Disposal of meth-contaminated materials also factors significantly into the cost.

Taking responsibility

The same bill that establishes standards for meth lab cleanup -- HB 1182 -- also makes property owners responsible for meeting those standards, though once they clean the property, they would be released from any further liability.

The property owner can still wage a civil suit against the meth manufacturer, but that's not really an option according to John Barr, president of the Craig Landlords' Association.

"If they're in jail, you sure aren't going to get money out of them," he said.

The average cost of cleaning up a home or apartment that's been contained by a meth lab is $5,000, but has ranged as high as $150,000.

It's a cost insurance policies most likely won't cover.

"It's a specific area that most companies would probably find a way not to claim," said agent Vicky Field of Moffat Insurance in Craig. "In most cases, they'd be looking for any way around having to pay for that."

Field said there aren't any specific exclusions written in policies -- methamphetamine is such a new drug -- but it would be considered an unlawful act, which isn't covered.

"It's really up to the interpretation of the claims department," she said.

Personal injury caused by meth use in a home also isn't covered.

The bottom line, Hunt said, is that most meth labs aren't cleaned up because there's no one who will -- or can -- take financial responsibility for doing so.

"You have to look at the owner profile," he said. "They're typically not people who will get out a checkbook and say, 'Let's take care of this problem.'"

Additionally, there is no comprehensive method for tracking or listing homes that have been used as meth labs.

Realtor Stacey Mathers said agents are required to disclose whether a home has been the site of a meth lab, but there's no way of knowing for sure that has happened.

Hunt said a home can be tested for meth residue and byproducts, but the cost ranges from $500 to $800 -- not including travel time. The nearest listed abatement specialists are located in Colorado Springs.

Because Craig is a small town, word of mouth might lead a Realtor to checking with law enforcement before listing a property, but that's about the only way to know, Mathers said.

A Craig resident, who asked that her name be withheld, just went through the process of trying to buy a house where methamphetamine was manufactured. She was ready to make an offer when a friend prompted her to look deeper into the home's history.

She called GRAMNET, which confirmed a meth lab was found in the house and sent her a list of the chemicals and paraphernalia found there after a bust.

"I just dropped it like a hot potato," she said.

She found the house could be cleaned, but at a cost ranging from $10,000 to $15,000.

"I just decided it wasn't worth it," she said.

Who's at risk?

According to the North Metro Task Force, people have gotten sick from chance encounters with meth or meth byproducts -- public works personnel, highway departments, utility workers, county health agencies and social workers.

Waste from meth labs is often dumped on the sides of roads, in fields or wooded areas, though that occurrence has yet to be reported in Craig.

Moffat County Road and Bridge Department Director Bill Mack said his crews have been warned about what to look for, but they haven't encountered and suspicious waste.

"If something looks suspicious, we don't handle it, we call the authorities," he said.

As the landfill manager, he also runs the risk of people dumping toxic waste, but he said incoming loads are monitored and waste is covered on a daily basis so there's no risk of human contact.

Mack admitted it wouldn't be difficult to dispose of toxic waste at the landfill.

"Sometimes you don't know what comes in (the loads)," he said.

He's been contacted by the Moffat County Sheriff's Department and was given a heads up on what to look for.

"If anything doesn't look right, we contact the sheriff's department," he said.

Residents are warned that if they find suspicious containers or laboratory equipment on their property, they should leave the area and contact law enforcement without handling anything.

Identifying labs

Living in a home that was formerly a meth lab is one risk. Living near an active meth lab is another.

Lori Moriarti, with the North Metro Task Force worked on a study in which methamphetamine was cooked in a hotel room. Later tests showed the walls and fabrics in the adjacent rooms were contaminated.

Indicators of the presence of a meth lab include an strong, uncommonly sweet odor, the smell of auto parts cleaner or ammonia, Moriarti said. For secrecy and in an effort to prevent odors from escaping, many cooks cover their windows with aluminum foil.

Other indicators are the disposal of unusual trash including empty anti-freeze containers, camp fuel cans, battery parts, stained coffee filters or drain cleaners.

Barr said members of the Landlord Association have undergone training on identifying meth labs and meth users. He said he can't remember an instance where a meth lab was found in a Craig apartment.

"(Meth) is in Craig. It's all over the place," he said. "The association screens tenants and watches. We alert the police if we see anything suspicious."

At Barr's complex, Golden Arms Apartments, he's adopted the policy that any tenant caught with drugs is automatically evicted. Other apartment owners are considering doing the same thing, he said.

"The only way to get ahead of this problem is to stay ahead of it."

Members of the Landlord Association were also taught to identify the smell that accompanies a meth lab.

"It sticks in your mind," Barr said. "If you smell it again, you'll know it.

"If you stay on top of your business, that stuff's pretty hard to cover up in a tight situation. If the neighbors don't complain, you should still be able to smell it."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com

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