July 6, 2005

Meth Fumes Linger After Cooking

People exposed to methamphetamine labs may be in more danger than previously believed, because fumes linger at least a day after the drug is cooked, according to a Colorado Springs study.

Headed by the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, the study measured the toxic fumes meth labs emit and how they contaminate a house.

The center has measured hazardous exposure while meth is being manufactured -- the levels can be deadly -- but the new study conducted in Colorado Springs is hailed as groundbreaking because it examined the aftermath.

The study's findings are scheduled to be published within a few weeks, but some preliminary results are available.

"There was lots of methamphetamine everywhere," said Shawn Arbuckle, a researcher with the center.

In April, a chemist with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration cooked 6 ounces of crystal meth inside a small donated home on Ehrich Street off 25th Street.

Researchers donned protective suits and "lived" in the house -- vacuuming, tossing sofa pillows, crawling on the carpet and rummaging through the kitchen. Air samples measured which chemicals were present up to the day after the lab was in operation.

A key finding, Arbuckle said, is that airborne meth particles found inside the next day were much smaller than researchers thought they'd be.

"They were smaller than pollen," he said. "They can easily get into the lungs and be absorbed into the lungs. It has huge implications for children running around in these labs."

Kids are exposed by being in a home where a lab was.

"It allows the drug to get into the body much easier and quicker with small particles," Arbuckle said.

It also means adults, including police and firefighters, unknowingly visiting homes of labs are easily exposed.

Another key finding, Arbuckle said, is that chemicals used to make meth such as iodine and sulfuric acid were found in the air the day after the drug was cooked.

The study looked at the aftermath of a lab the day after the drug was cooked. National Jewish would like to do a more in-depth study, examining the aftermath days, months and up to a year after the drug is cooked.

Exposure to meth labs has been linked to kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes, seizures and death.

The drug is made from over-the-counter cold medicine and common household chemicals. Hazards posed by the chemicals used to make it are generally understood, but it's unknown what happens when the chemicals are combined and how much of them seep into carpets, toys and anything else in a house.

The Colorado Springs study, involving the Police Department's meth team and several other area and federal agencies, was launched when the city's Fire Department teamed with National Jewish.

Firefighters want to learn how meth contamination affects a fire and whether such a fire burns more quickly, which would play into whether firefighters are sent into known meth labs to battle blazes.

"We're real anxious to see the results because part of the study is not only to help with what kids are exposed to but what our people are getting exposed to," Colorado Springs fire Capt. J.T. Williams said.

After the air samples were taken, firefighters set fire to the house, reducing the chemical compounds inside.

CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0366 or [email protected]


2005, as of Friday: 29

2004: 96

2003: 156

2002: 153

2001: 87

2000: 79

Colorado Springs police cite a combination of factors for the decrease in lab busts, including tougher laws, meth cooks getting better at concealing labs, community education and the conviction of a Fountain business owner for selling large quantities of iodine, used to make the drug.

SOURCE: Colorado Springs Police Department