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Cleaning Up Hazardous Chemicals at Methamphetamine Laboratories
What is methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine is an illegal drug known as “meth,” “speed,” “crank,” “crystal,” and “ice.” Meth is a powerful synthetic drug that affects the central nervous system. It’s often made in makeshift laboratories, such as rented apartments or hotel rooms. After the production of meth, a property can be contaminated with hazardous chemicals. If there is evidence of contamination, no one should enter a former meth lab unless they wear appropriate personal protection equipment.
How does meth affect users?
The effects of meth are similar to those of cocaine. It gives the user a “rush” or intense feeling of pleasure when taken. Meth is a popular drug because the affects last longer than cocaine and it’s relatively easy to make. Meth is also known as “poor man’s cocaine,” and can be injected, snorted, taken orally, or smoked. Long-term use of meth can lead to physical dependence. Meth may give a person periods of high energy and rapid speech. Many chronic meth users also experience severe depression, delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, and violent behavior. Extreme caution should be exercised when entering a meth lab, both in terms of the hazardous chemicals and how the drug affects the user.
What chemicals is meth made from?
There are many different chemical "recipes" for making or “cooking” meth, each using different ingredients. Many chemicals used in meth labs are also common in homes, but it’s the poor handling and disposal of these chemicals, as well as mixing incompatible compounds, that create hazards. The common household chemicals used in a meth lab include flammable solvents or volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as methanol, ether, benzene, methylene chloride, trichloroethane, toluene. Other common household chemicals include muriatic (hydrochloric) acid, sodium hydroxide (lye), table salt, and ammonia. Meth-related chemicals not commonly found in large amounts in homes include other solvents (lantern fuel, gas-line antifreeze ‘heet’, etc), anhydrous ammonia, red phosphorous (strike pads from match books/boxes), iodine, and reactive metals. A number of steps are needed during the process of “cooking” meth and additional hazardous chemicals can be formed. As a result of meth “cooking,” many chemicals may contaminate a property. Some household materials may actually absorb the chemicals. For example: carpeting, wallboard, ceiling tile, or fabric may soak-up the chemicals. Furniture or draperies may also become contaminated. If meth vapors enter a heating or A/C ventilation system, other areas in a building can become contaminated. Soil or groundwater may become contaminated if chemicals are dumped in a septic system or on the ground.
Will exposure to chemicals in a meth lab result in harmful health effects?
Many of the chemicals used in the “cooking” of meth can be harmful. Health effects from an exposure to these chemicals depends on several factors: the quantity and nature of chemical(s) present, the length of exposure, and the personal health of the person exposed. The greatest chemical hazards posed at a meth lab occur during “cooking.” 2 Short-term exposures to high concentrations of chemical vapors in a functioning meth lab can cause severe health problems, including lung damage and chemical burns to different parts of the body. Heating solvents inside a building can create a highly flammable situation; meth labs are often discovered when fire fighters respond to a blaze. Breathing elevated levels of solvents can result in symptoms such as nose and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, confusion, and breathing difficulties. Some solvents, such as benzene, are known or suspected to cause certain cancers. Acids or bases will cause burning sensation in the skin and mucous membranes, and can cause severe eye damage. Exposure to metals and chemical salts can cause a wide range of health effects including respiratory irritation, decreased mental function, anemia, and kidney damage. Chemical residues and lab wastes that are left behind at a former meth lab can also result in similar health problems for people who use the property. Unsuspecting people can touch residues of meth and have symptoms similar to those experienced by meth users.
What kind of protective equipment can prevent chemical exposure?
At a minimum, all people entering a building or an area that was a former meth lab should wear protective eye, hand and foot covering. Disposable gloves (e.g. latex or nitrile) and a disposable protective jumpsuit (e.g. Tyvek) are recommended. If toxic fumes or vapors are suspected, only trained professionals should enter and clean the building with appropriate safety equipment.
How can a meth lab be cleaned up?
Since illegal drug labs are an emerging problem, there is currently no official guidance or regulations on exactly how to clean up former meth labs, particularly inside of a building. Situations are different in each meth lab. Sometimes only scrubbing and painting is necessary to restore a former meth lab to a safe living environment. Occasionally contamination is so broad and extensive that the inside of the building needs complete renovation. Across the U.S., the response to cleaning up former meth lab properties ranges from minor cleaning to complete demolition of buildings. In general, the safest way to clean up a former meth lab is to hire environmental companies trained in hazardous substance removal and clean up. Owners who decide to clean properties on their own should be aware that household building materials and furniture may absorb contaminants and, in some cases, give off fumes. Property owners may ultimately be responsible for proper clean up and costs.
What kind of sampling is necessary and who should do it?
After law enforcement removes evidence from a meth lab, sampling may be needed to determine whether any hazards remain. Since meth can be made in a variety of ways, each situation is unique. Different meth “cooking” methods use different chemicals. Knowing the method of production can help determine the appropriate type of sampling. If sampling is necessary, it should be done according to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. Preferably, a certified industrial hygienist should be consulted before doing any sampling.
What is an acceptable clean up level?
There are no pre-determined clean up levels inside a building or home for many chemicals associated with meth labs. A risk assessment may be necessary in order to evaluate the potential for exposure on a case-by-case basis.
The Wyoming Department of Health should be notified by calling 307-777-7172. If chemicals have been dumped or spilled in the environment (on the ground, in a septic system, etc) the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) must be notified 307-777-7752.
The DEQ has guidelines to address environmental contamination. Until a former meth lab is cleaned, no one should enter the area without appropriate protective equipment. Furthermore, no one should rent, purchase, or occupy a former meth lab building until proper cleaning has occurred.
Building clean up guidelines include:
· Air out the building
After law enforcement officials seize a lab, professionals (typically U.S. EPA contractors) trained to handle hazardous materials are called in to remove lab waste and any bulk chemicals. During this removal, every effort is made to air out the building for the safety of the removal crew. For security reasons, the building is usually closed upon their departure. The short-term airing-out may not be sufficient to clear the solvents remaining inside. The building should be aired out for several days before and during cleaning. To promote the evaporating and dispersal of solvents that were spilled, windows and doors may be closed and the temperature inside the building increased to approximately 90o F (32oC) for a few days. After cleaning and heating is complete, the building should remain aired out for 3 to 5 days to allow for any solvents to disperse from the building. Open all the building's windows and set up exhaust fans to circulate out the air. During this time, the building should remain off limits unless it’s necessary to make short visits to the property. After the cleaning and final 3 to 5 days of airing-out, the building should be checked for re-staining and odors, which indicates the initial cleaning was not successful, and further, more extensive steps should be taken.
· Remove and dispose of contamination
During the meth “cooking” process, vapors are given off that can spread and be absorbed by nearby materials. Splashed and spilled chemicals, supplies and equipment can further contaminate non-lab items. It’s a good idea to remove unnecessary items from the building and dispose of them properly. Items that are visibly contaminated should be removed, double-bagged and properly disposed, typically at a local landfill. The local landfill operator should be contacted prior to disposal of these wastes.
Some wastes may be classified as a state hazardous waste, and depending on the quantity, may not be allowed for disposal at a local landfill. If less than 220 pounds of hazardous waste are generated, and the waste is non-liquid, it may be disposed at a local landfill provided prior disposal authorization is obtained from the operator. Quantities of hazardous waste greater than 220 pounds must be disposed at a permitted hazardous waste disposal facility. DEQ may be contacted for information on how to determine whether the wastes may be classified as a hazardous waste.
If you find suspicious containers or lab equipment at the property, do not handle them. Leave the area and contact your local law enforcement agency or fire department. It’s possible some items may accidentally be left behind by law enforcement. If a hazardous materials clean up team searched the property, the items are probably not dangerous. But, some items may be overlooked in the debris or confusion. Bulk liquid chemicals cannot be disposed at a landfill and DEQ should be contacted for disposal options. Absorbent materials, such as carpeting, drapes, clothing, furniture, etc., can accumulate vapors, dust, or splattered chemicals during “cooking.” It’s recommended these materials be disposed, especially if an odor or discoloration is present.
· Inspect surfaces, remove or clean as needed
Surfaces such as walls, counters, floors, and ceilings, are porous and can hold contamination from the meth “cooking” or preparation process. Clean up is important because of frequent contact with these surfaces, e.g. food preparation, etc. If a surface has visible contamination, staining, or gives off odors, complete removal and replacement of the surface is recommended. This could include removal and replacement of wallboard, floor coverings and counters. Appliances where meth was stored or “cooked” in, such as refrigerators, kitchen ranges, or ovens, should be prudently evaluated for disposal and replacement. The local landfill operator should be contacted prior to disposal of these wastes. If this is not feasible, intensive cleaning followed by the application of a physical barrier such as paint or epoxy is recommended. These areas should be monitored and the barrier maintained to assure that the contamination is contained. Wear gloves, protective clothing, such as long sleeves, and eye protection while cleaning. Again, ventilation of the building should be continued throughout the cleaning process.
· Inspect ventilation system and filters
Ventilation systems (heating, air conditioning) of large scale meth labs can collect fumes and dust and redistribute them throughout a building. The vents, ductwork, filters, and even the walls and ceilings near ventilation ducts can become contaminated. Replace all of the air filters in the system, remove and clean vents, clean the surfaces near system inlets and outlets, and clean the system's ductwork.
· Inspect plumbing
While some of the waste products generated during meth manufacture may be thrown into storm sewers, along the sides of roads or in yards, most are dumped down sinks, drains, and toilets. These waste products can collect in drains, traps, and septic tanks and give off fumes. If a strong chemical odor is coming from household plumbing, do not attempt to address the problem yourself, contact a plumbing contractor for professional assistance. If you suspect the septic tank or yard may be contaminated, contact the local health department or DEQ (contact information listed above).
· Repaint surfaces
When a surface has been cleaned, painting that surface should be considered, especially in areas where contamination was found or suspected. If there is any remaining contamination that cleaning did not remove, painting the surface puts a barrier between the contamination and anyone who may come in contact with those surfaces. Painting will cover up and "lock" the contamination onto the surface, reducing the chances of it being released into the air. A sealer or primer may be appropriate before using a finish paint.
Summary steps for clean up:
1. Determine if the building or building was used for meth production.
2. Thoroughly ventilate the building before and during clean up.
3. Remove and dispose all unnecessary items.
4. Remove visibly contaminated items or items that have an odor.
5. Clean all surfaces using household cleaning methods and proper personal protection.
6. Clean the ventilation system.
7. Leave plumbing cleaning to the experts.
8. Air out the building for 3 to 5 days.
9. If odor or staining remains, have the building evaluated by a professional.
Should testing be done after clean up?
If concerns of contamination remain after cleaning the building, or there is still an odor, visible staining, or physical irritation to those exposed, it’s advisable for a professional to evaluate and test these areas. Testing should also be done if there are concerns with liability issues. Sampling may provide peace of mind for property owners and families and is the most reliable way to measure the effectiveness of clean-up efforts. Guidance and standards are currently available and are being improved as more is learned about meth lab remediation. The owners should consider contacting their insurance carrier for advice and assistance.
For more information, contact:
Wyoming Department of Health
2300 Capitol Avenue
Cheyenne, WY 82002
Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality
Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste
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