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Drug of choice leaves behind hazards

September 19, 2010
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The methamphetamine drug lab (meth lab) epidemic continues to grow across the United States, at a pace unrivaled by any other drug in recent times. More than 10,000 homes were involved in methamphetamine production last year, according to Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) statistics.

The drug-making process is simple — all the ingredients and equipment are easily found at any local hardware store and pharmacy, and instructions and “recipes” are readily available on the Internet.

This inexpensive, easy to make, highly addictive drug has become increasingly popular in recent years — it’s an unfortunate trend.

More disturbingly, the preferred location for setting up a meth lab operation is often in the kitchen of a home. The stove provides a convenient heat source to create the necessary chemical reactions. However, a home is not the only place meth can be produced —meth labs are routinely found in garages, hotels, cars, tree houses and outhouses.

Certification by law
Presently, there are only a handful of states that formally track and manage homes reported to have been affected by a meth lab operation. In these states, rules or ordinances are evoked requiring a property owner to decontaminate the structure.

A property owner often hires a professional consultant and decontamination contractor to complete the work according to the state’s requirements — to assist in this cause, several states have developed formal contractor certification programs.

Participation in a certification training program ensures the contractor is aware of the requirements, has demonstrated the competency to perform the work, and will abide by the established technical and ethical standards. Contractors interested in adding meth lab decontamination to their list of services offered to clients should consult their local or state public health regulatory agency to find out if formal certification or other requirements apply.

OSHA steps in
In most states, no such formal certification program exists — this means contractors might find themselves “on their own” in delivering this service.

Out of need to network and further the professional development of this issue, the National Association of Drug Lab Decontamination Contractors is being formed — call (800) 924-6384 for information about this group.

Due to the potential hazards that may be present, many states require that contractors offering to perform decontamination work need to adhere to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) worker safety standards [Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) 29 CFR 1910.120.]

Following proper procedure
Although all of the gross chemicals have usually been removed by law enforcement immediately following a raid, a contractor should be prepared to encounter:

  • leftover chemical spills
  • residues
  • airborne contaminants
  • hazardous wastes

Due to this fact, environmental consulting and contracting companies — those intimately familiar with all applicable regulations — are performing much of the work.

Those contractors performing decontamination activities must not only be able to recognize and safeguard themselves against chemical hazards, but also properly manage the waste produced. A home’s furnishings and personal property need to be thoroughly cleaned and tested before it can be cleared for reuse.

Most states take the conservative approach and require discarding personal property, especially porous items such as carpet, upholstered furniture, and bedding that readily absorb chemical and drug residues.

All discarded items contaminated with just methamphetamine are most often handled as a non-hazardous waste. As such, it can be disposed of as municipal solid waste (garbage) or as special waste and placed into a landfill.

However, if there are areas or items that are chemically contaminated, these must be segregated and disposed of properly. Consult your local or state regulatory agency for proper disposal requirements.

Setting standards
Currently, there is no national cleanup standard for decontaminating a meth-lab home. Several states are conducting research to determine the best technique and products to use to remove chemical and drug residues.

Some studies are finding that certain chemicals are penetrating the sheetrock and absorbing into the wood studs — only to off-gas at a later time.

A number of states have developed rules requiring that a specific cleanup process be followed, while others provide just a simple instructional “how-to” fact sheet for homeowners to perform the cleanup work themselves.

Cleanup — the price to be paid
The tedious work performed to comply with decontamination requirements comes at a price — what gets evaluated is the cost of necessary restoration work, versus the value of the home.

In rare cases, cleanup costs exceed the value of a home and the home is considered a total loss.

Due to the fact that the problem was the result of a criminal act and involved hazardous materials, a homeowner’s insurance policy usually does not provide any coverage or relief. This has resulted in homes being boarded-up and ultimately foreclosed upon, leaving the bank holding the bag.

As states continue to develop programs, regulatory requirements, and a means to completely manage this problem, decontamination contractors must be mindful of the varying compliance requirements and work closely with their respective agencies.

It appears from law enforcement statistics that the meth lab problem is gaining momentum — in its wake, it leaves homes that pose an exposure risk unless properly decontaminated.


Dan Hannan is a contract employee of Assured Decontamination Services (ADS) and has been an environmental professional for 14 years, having worked for the State of Minnesota environmental regulatory agency and for a private environmental consulting company as the corporate Health, Safety and Emergency Response manager. He is a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM) who holds a national security clearance through the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and has responded to, or managed more than 300 meth labs.
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