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Cleaning up the meth mess

By Jill Penley
Freelance Writer

If you think Tennessee’s methamphetamine problem doesn’t affect you as a non-user, think again. There are lingering, and sometimes enduring costs, risks, and damages associated with illegal meth production and use.
Federal data suggests tens of thousands of homes in the U.S., have been used for cooking meth over the past decade. About 25 states have laws related to meth cleanup. Some, including Tennessee, place meth homes on quarantine lists, which can be accessed at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) website.
Johnson County currently has 27 properties on the state list, with several dating back to 2010, underscoring the years it can take for some properties to be cleaned, if ever.
Methamphetamine labs contain various chemical, physical, and biological hazards, and some chemicals are incompatible with normal cleaning solutions, which frequently only discovered when an unfavorable reaction has started to occur.
Without proper training and protective equipment, these labs are quite dangerous. For this reason, to make a meth home safe, a TDEC Certified CML, or Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratory, contractor must remove and replace all contaminated materials, from walls to the carpet to air conditioning vents. Next, a certified “industrial hygienist” tests the home to gauge whether it can be occupied or needs more cleaning.
Despite laws requiring landlords to disclose if meth has been manufactured at a property, experts say such disclosures often don’t happen, and many people continue to reside in contaminated homes nationwide.
This process can be time-consuming and expensive, with costs ranging anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000, depending on the home’s size and the amount of contamination. To add to the problem, at about the same time, it became easier for users to make methamphetamine, federal budget cuts made it harder for authorities to dispose of meth labs’ toxic leftovers. Until the budget was cut in 2011, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) assisted Tennessee and other states by footing the bill for lab cleanup through a large grant from the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS program. After losing the millions of dollars they once used to clean up the battery acid, starting fluid, anhydrous ammonia, and other hazardous chemicals used in meth’s manufacture, local law enforcement agencies across the country were forced to fund their own lab disposals, draining budgets already strained in most cases.
Innocent citizens including numerous children are exposed to and affected by domestic meth manufacture
In addition to safety issues, methamphetamine production raises serious environmental concerns. The chemicals used in the production process are volatile, and laboratories usually contain a variety of highly flammable toxic chemicals and vapors. For every pound of methamphetamine produced, five to seven pounds of hazardous waste materials result. Toxic waste–dumped onto the ground, into rivers, or placed in containers that will eventually corrode and leak–can contaminate soil, kill vegetation, and poison local water supplies. Farmers could unwittingly use contaminated water to irrigate crops and water livestock. Studies suggest rural areas are more at risk of water contamination than urban areas because municipal water supplies are chemically treated and frequently monitored.
While local law enforcement and community advocacy groups, such as the A.C.T.I.O.N. Coalition, have worked tirelessly to bring meth-making numbers down, there is still more that can be done, including being aware of some common ‘telltale’ signs that meth might be cooking near. A landlord, or another property owner, may encounter empty containers and boxes from chemicals. Other clues include stained soil or concrete, as well as dead grass from chemicals being dumped. Large quantities of over-the-counter medications like decongestants, paint thinner, lye, Freon, acetone, iodine, hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric acid, phosphoric acid, and ammonia are sometimes present. Meth lab equipment might include rubber hosing, duct tape, bottles, and other glass containers, pressurized cylinders, camp stove fuel canisters, propane tanks, and respiratory masks.
Residents or neighbors may notice a strong chemical odor and could experience certain health conditions, like skin irritations, headaches, and respiratory problems.
A number of quarantined homes in East Tennessee are never cleaned up, creating an eyesore and spoiling the beauty of the area. Many of these houses sit empty for years – doors ajar and windows broken – in a perpetual state of disrepair, as a constant reminder of the immense danger of manufacturing and using methamphetamine.