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Unlawful lab leftovers. (Drug Abuse).

The preservation of biodiversity is often thought of as something that poor people are asked to do to fulfill the wishes of rich people living in comfort thousands of miles away.

Peter H. Raven BioScience, November 1986

The last decade has seen the painfully rapid rise in the use of methamphetamine, an illegal and dangerous drug with unpredictable effects on users. Also known as speed, ice, or crystal, methamphetamine is a potent central nervous system stimulant that can be smoked, snorted, injected, or ingested. The toll it takes on users is high. However, the potential environmental health hazards from the labs that manufacture methamphetamine are also severe. For every pound of processed methamphetamine there are an estimated six pounds of waste.

The recipes that so-called meth cooks use to produce methamphetamine are relatively simple and available on the Internet. Methamphetamine can be produced using over-the-counter drugs such as cold remedies, household products, and other easily available chemicals. Ingredients may include ephedrine, sodium hydroxide, red phosphorus, sulfuric acid, lithium, aluminum hydride, chloroform, alcohols, ethers, mercuric chloride, and hydrochloric acid.

The by-products and contaminants associated with methamphetamine production vary, depending upon how controlled and sophisticated the production process is. Over- or underheating or improper mixing can generate toxic by-products such as lead oxide, aluminum hydroxide, mercury vapor, iodine, phosphine, and yellow phosphorus. These chemicals become a threat to all who come in contact with them when they are released into the air, septic systems, streams, or soil, or when they permeate furniture, carpets, or air vents.

Since producing salable quantities of methamphetamine is not difficult, clandestine labs have been set up in houses, apartments, motel rooms, sheds, and motor vehicles. The latest (1999) national survey from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency showed over 7,500 clandestine lab seizures, with the largest numbers in western states such as California, Arizona, and Washington, followed by midwestern states such as Missouri, Iowa, and Arkansas. More labs are being found in previously little-affected regions such as New England. In addition, there has been a dramatic escalation in reported numbers since the 1999 survey, partially as a result of growing awareness and expertise among law enforcement officials. For example, Washington State officials seized 1,454 labs in 2000 (double the 1999 figure) and had seized that many again by October 2001.

When in operation, the clandestine laboratories present a high risk of fires and toxic gas releases. Many of the initial ingredients and combinations made from them are potentially explosive. The labs also expose the cooks, their children, and their neighbors to toxic substances.

When abandoned or seized, the labs pose new legal and health challenges. At the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has specialists that aid and train law enforcement, health, and environmental departments, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has primary responsibility for response and overseeing the cleanup. Most of the hands-on cleanup work falls on state and local officials.

States that have felt the brunt of the epidemic of drug labs have developed the most comprehensive response. According to Sheryl Hutchison, director of communication and education at the Washington State Department of Ecology, dealing with most clandestine labs is a relatively straightforward task. "The law enforcement officials seal off the site, then the Ecology Department will remove any hazardous substances and materials, and test for contamination of soil," she says.

The sites commonly contain contaminated glassware, hypodermic needles, and other debris that must be properly disposed of. About 90% of the refuse can be disposed of in regular landfills, while the remaining 10% must go to hazardous waste treatment facilities. The scale of the waste problem may diminish, however; Darin Perrollaz, a senior project manager with Kleen Environmental Technologies, a contractor certified in methamphetamine cleanup operations, says, "The labs keep getting smaller as the cooks get more efficient and find ways to get more effective throughput."

Officials must wear protective clothing and respirators when entering labs in enclosed spaces such as homes or apartments. Perrollaz says the contractor must do a complete assessment of the property, including air vents, septic systems, and neighboring apartments. Extensive mold and mildew in the walls, caused by cooking in closed spaces without proper ventilation, is often one of the biggest structural issues. One of the greatest cleanup hazards is pressurized cylinders and containers used to hold anhydrous ammonia, a corrosive gas. Hutchison says, "We take them to an abandoned gravel pit, and law enforcement officials will shoot holes in them with high-powered rifles."

When the simple removal of hazardous materials is not enough to allow normal occupancy, then the site must be thoroughly decontaminated. The owner of the site is usually responsible for the cost, which can be so high that some landlords and homeowners choose simply to abandon the structure instead. "The really tough story is that many of the labs are in the homes of elderly people who have let their kids move back," says Perrollaz. "When the clandestine lab is discovered, the entire home may be declared uninhabitable."
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Author:Holton, W. Conard
Publication:Environmental Health Perspectives
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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