USEPA Issues Voluntary Meth Lab Cleanup Guidelines


Image: EPA Meth Lab Remediation Guidelines
The Volunteers Who Clean Up Meth Labs
The DEA estimates that over 100,000 illegal methamphetamine (meth) labs operate in the United States. The guys working in clandestine labs obviously have accepted the risks of handling chemicals that destroy skin and blind eyes while reacting with moisture, or that ignite spontaneously in air and burn violently with explosions splattering hot material, or have effects like tremors, convulsions, liver, kidney or central nervous system damage. (In fact, enforcement authorities discover almost one in five labs after a fire or explosion, often killing or injuring emergency responders as well as meth cooks).

But what about the property owner or law enforcement officer who finds the abandoned lab, and the guys called in to clean up the mess? These are the "volunteers" that will use the new Voluntary Guidelines for Methamphetamine Laboratory Cleanup. What will they learn on how to safely clean up the mess meth labs leave behind and how to determine when the property is clean enough for the next residents to move in?The Victims of Meth Labs
Operating under code names like "Nazi", "Prope Dope", and "Tweaker" which tag the production method, meth labs may use a variety of substitute chemicals if the ingredients of the original recipe are not at hand. The EPA Meth Lab Remediation Guideline lists 50 chemicals that might be found in a meth lab, depending upon which recipe and method of "cooking" the meth was used. For every pound of meth produced, five to six pounds of toxic waste are left to be dumped, according to the bill funding meth remediation research.

Anyone could be "volunteered" into a cleanup after finding the remains of an illegal lab in a rental home, motel room, or abandoned trailer. Full-scale labs may operate out of rented professional real estate. In some cases, a family may not realize they are living in the toxic residues of a closed lab until they find suspicious equipment in storage or experience illnesses from chemical exposure.

What Meth Labs Have in Common with Industrial Waste Sites
Actually, most of these guidelines will look familiar to anyone involved in clean up of contaminated industrial facilities. The Voluntary Guidelines for Methamphetamine Laboratory Cleanup follow a standard remediation playbook. Precautions must be taken to find a qualified contractor to do the work, and to protect the health and safety of workers during the site assessment and clean up. Information, and possibly chemical samples, must be collected to determine the type and extent of contamination:

  • Are lead and mercury residues left behind?
  • Did chemical wastes collect in pipes, drains, septic systems or ventilation ducts?
  • Are there signs of hazardous waste burial or burning on the site?
  • Does contamination extend to neighboring properties or into groundwater systems?

Once an assessment defines the scope of the problem, a clean up plan must be designed and implemented. The Voluntary Guidelines for Methamphetamine Laboratory Cleanup also presents an overview of the various State remediation levels, which define how clean a site must be to be considered "clean."

Problems Particular to Meth Lab Clean Up
Special issues that arise due to the types of chemicals used in manufacturing methamphetamines are highlighted in the EPA document. For example, the use of bleach containing cleaners could react with methamphetamine manufacturing ingredients to form toxic gases. Walls, ceilings and other surfaces must be washed three times, taking care to use new washing solution and new rags for each successive cleaning. The waste from all this cleaning may have to be disposed of as special waste.

The guideline lists questions that need more research to be fully answered, like: "does washing meth contamination off of skin with soap and water increase the speed of meth absorption through the skin?" And does the practice of "baking," or sealing and heating the property to evaporate residues, help reduce contamination or increase the danger by mobilizing and redistributing dangerous chemicals?

The Human Face of Meth Lab Pollution
Considerations that do not normally arise in industrial remediation are also addressed. For example,

  • Can a family keepsake be cleaned or must it be disposed?
  • How must children's toys be disposed in order to guarantee that the toxic toys never land in the hands of another child?
  • What precautions are necessary to protect recycling workers so that appliances and electronics not fit for future kitchen use can be sent for recycling?

Almost everything porous, including books, countertops, mattresses and furniture, must be disposed. Meth lab clean up costs can range from $5000 to $150,000. The emotional costs to the people who owned property contaminated by illegal drug activity cannot be calculated. And the cost to taxpayers to study and manage this issue, in the face of so many serious environmental issues, is a loss we must all feel.

More Issues with Drugs:
EPA Meth Lab Remediation Guidelines
Methamphetamines Pollute More than the Body
Meth Heads Go For Recycling
Cocaine Blues: Coke-Heads Aiding Rainforest Destruction
Drugs Are In Our Water! Should I Switch to Bottled?

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