Information gathered from "Fostering perspectives, Volume 9 # 2 May 2005" published by the Family & Children's Resource Program and NC DSS.
Meth Lab Basics
Meth users have discovered a way to make the drug in small batches in homemade “labs,” using readily-available ingredients. These ingredients include cold medicine, matches, drain cleaner, and paint thinner. Although it is extremely dangerous, making meth does not require a chemistry background or special equipment.
In North Carolina meth labs have been found in homes, apartments, hotel rooms, vehicles, and close to schools. Meth labs can be highly mobile; some fit into a duffle bag or the trunk of a car. Statistics from California indicate that most cooks make meth 48 to 72 times a year. It takes between four and six hours to cook the drug. For every pound of methamphetamine they make, these labs generate five to seven pounds of toxic waste.
Effects on Children
Threats faced by children exposed to meth labs include the following.
A recent study of meth labs found that “chemicals spread throughout the house. The methamphetamine is deposited everywhere, from walls and carpets to microwaves, tabletops and clothing. Children living in those labs might as well be taking the drug directly.” Indeed, approximately 35% of children found in meth labs test positive for toxic levels of chemicals in their bodies, including meth. Children in meth labs most commonly come into contact with chemicals through inhalation and absorption through the skin. Long-term exposure to meth lab toxins can damage the nerves, lungs, kidneys, liver, eyes, and skin. It is not uncommon for children removed from meth labs to have chemically-induced asthma or pneumonia that clears up after the children are out of the lab. Fires and explosions. Experts report that approximately one in every six meth labs seized by authorities is discovered because of a fire or an explosion caused by careless handling and overheating of volatile, hazardous chemicals and waste and unsafe manufacturing methods.
When parents use or make meth, their children often lack necessities such as food, water, and shelter, and they frequently lack adequate medical care, including proper immunizations and dental care. In addition, the cycle of meth abuse has a built-in phase when parents “crash” and are unable to look after their children. Children in meth-using families may also face hazards such as used hypodermic needles and razor blades.
Exposure to parents intoxicated by meth may compromise child safety: when high, users often exhibit poor judgment, confusion, irritability, paranoia, and increased violence. Because meth increases the sexual appetites of users, children of meth users may be at greater risk for sexual abuse, either by parents themselves or by other adults coming in and out of the home.
Loaded firearms are found in easy-to-reach locations in the vast majority of meth labs. Dangerous animals and booby traps designed to protect meth labs pose added physical hazards. Children may even be involved in the manufacturing process, but receive no protective gear.
Effects on Communities
Meth labs have a tremendous impact on communities. In North Carolina typical cleanup costs for a meth lab are between $4,000 and $10,000. These costs must be absorbed by property owners and local and state government. Unlike other drugs, meth creates little revenue for law enforcement. Instead of seizing homes and valuables that can offset interdiction costs, officials are left with costly cleanup and ruined properties. Meth labs also pose a threat to the general public and the environment. Because clothing and other articles are so easily contaminated by meth production, toxins can quickly spread from one place to another, requiring involved cleanup. Meth cooks often dispose of lab waste by burning it, dumping it in streams, fields, and down toilets, or by simply leaving it behind in hotels, on roadsides, and in other public areas.
Recognizing a Meth Lab
Although not in and of themselves conclusive evidence, the following could signal the presence of a meth lab.
- Unusual, strong odors (like cat urine, ether, ammonia, or acetone) coming from sheds, outbuildings, other structures, fields, orchards, campsites, or especially vehicles (older model cars, vans) etc.
- Possession of large amounts of over-the-counter cold/allergy medications containing ephedrine or pseudo-ephedrine, or large quantities of solvents such as Acetone, Coleman Fuel, Toluene, etc.
- Discarded cold medicine/ephedrine bottles, coffee filters with oddly-colored stains, lithium batteries, antifreeze containers, lantern fuel cans, propane tanks.
- The mixing of unusual chemicals in a house, garage, or barn, or the possession f chemical glassware by persons not involved in the chemical industry.
- Heavy traffic during late night hours.
- Residences with fans in windows in cold weather, or blacked-out windows.
If You Suspect a Meth Lab
Seventy-five percent of meth labs found in North Carolina have been “stumbled upon.” If you suspect a meth lab take these steps:
- Remain calm. Give yourself time to think.
- Do NOT approach suspects. They are often armed and may be dangerous.
- Do NOT enter the lab area. Do not try to clean up the area. Evidence should remain undisturbed for investigation by law enforcement.
- If you are in the lab already, find an excuse to leave immediately.
- Never try to identify unknown substances by smelling or touching them.
- Keep a safe distance. Hazardous materials may ignite or the fumes may overcome you.
- Promptly notify local law enforcement.
Because some effects of chemical exposure can develop slowly, one should seek immediate medical attention if he/she notice the following :
- Unusual movements such as tremors, shaking, jumpiness, agitation, or seizures
- Trouble breathing, coughing, or poor color
- Hallucinations or mental confusion
- Any other unusual symptom that seems severe
More about Meth and Meth Labs in North Carolina
Meth lab seizures in North Carolina increased twenty-fold in the last four years. In 2001, 34 meth labs were found; in 2002 there were 98; in 2003 there were 177; in 2004 there were 322. North Carolina is doing what it can to combat this trend because it can get much worse: some states seize more than 2,000 meth labs a year.Rural communities are particularly at risk. Teens aged 12 to 14 who live in smaller towns are 104% more likely to use meth than those who live in larger cities. Meth “cooks” often site their labs in rural areas to hide the odors produced during manufacture. The trend is for labs to spread from rural to suburban to urban areas. Relatively few labs have been found in larger cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh, but they are becoming more common in small towns in western and eastern North Carolina.
Methamphetamine Frequently Asked Questions
What is a clandestine lab?
A clandestine laboratory is simply defined as a place where preparation of illegal substances takes place. These ‘labs’ are used to manufacture drugs, explosives and even biological or chemical weapons. Most often, the labs are used to manufacture methamphetamine, a potent illegal stimulant drug.
What hazards exist in a clandestine lab?
Since the activity in these labs is illegal, they are usually designed for ease of concealment of the activity and not for safety. Often, the persons running the lab have little or no formal education in chemistry. Numerous hazards exist in this environment including potential toxicities from the chemicals and gases produced, fires, explosions and chemical and thermal burns. Children living in a lab are at heightened risk for physical, psychological and sexual abuse as well as possible exposure to methamphetamine or dangerous chemicals, booby traps, violence, weapons and pornography.
What are the potential acute toxicities of these chemicals?
The answer to this question depends on the specific agent to which the individual was exposed, the route of exposure, the concentration of toxin and the duration of the exposure. Most reported acute effects are either caustic / corrosive (affecting the skin, eyes and other mucous membranes) or respiratory in nature (e.g. wheezing, coughing). Exposure to some solvents (e.g. n-hexane) can potentially cause peripheral neuropathy. Other hydrocarbon solvents can cause CNS depression if inhaled in high concentrations. The more concentrated and longer duration exposures are generally more serious, though brief exposures to some highly toxic agents (e.g. phosphine) may also be life-threatening.
What is meant by the term “decontamination” in reference to persons removed from a clandestine laboratory, why is it necessary and when should decontamination be performed?
“Decontamination” simply means thoroughly washing in order to remove any potentially harmful residue from persons removed from a hazardous site. Decontamination is necessary to protect the individual from continued exposure as well as to prevent possible secondary contamination of other persons, equipment and facilities with which a contaminated individual might come in contact. All persons removed from a clandestine lab should be properly decontaminated and dressed in clean clothing prior to any additional questioning or evaluation. Decontamination is necessary regardless of the age of the person removed from the lab and whether or not the lab was in use at the time of removal.
How should a person removed from a clandestine laboratory be decontaminated?
The answer to this question depends entirely upon the exposure history of the involved persons. For example, a police officer involved in warrant service in a lab may only need decontamination of his/her boots with a soap and water solution. An adult suspect removed from a lab must have all clothing removed and be thoroughly washed with soap and water, typically using portable warm water and then dried and dressed in clean clothing such as a jail jumpsuit. The best recommendation for a child is to have a facility such as a tent or camper available at the scene in which the child can be given a warm shower and then dressed in age and gender appropriate clothing to minimize the psychological impact of the decontamination process. Decisions regarding specifics of decontamination are most appropriately made by trained HAZMAT personnel.
When should someone removed from a clandestine laboratory be medically evaluated?
All symptomatic persons should be evaluated by medical personnel immediately upon decontamination. Asymptomatic adults may not require medical intervention. It is recommended that all children removed from clandestine labs be evaluated by a qualified practitioner.
When should someone removed from a clandestine laboratory be medically evaluated?
All symptomatic persons should be evaluated by medical personnel immediately upon decontamination. Asymptomatic adults may not require additional medical intervention. It is recommended that all children removed from clandestine labs be evaluated by a practitioner qualified to perform a complete pediatric evaluation within 24 hours of removal from the lab.
What signs and symptoms would a child likely display after being exposed to the environment in a clandestine laboratory?
There is no single, well-defined expected presentation for a child with a history of potential chemical exposure in a methamphetamine laboratory. Recent exposure to methamphetamine itself will likely cause a picture of sympathetic excess (tachycardia, hypertension, hyperthermia, etc.). A child with a more distant serious exposure to methamphetamine may present with CNS depression, neurological deficit or coma due to catecholamine depletion. It is important, however, not to focus only on the toxicity of the finished drug product. In point of fact, there are an untold number of potentially harmful chemicals with which a child could come in contact in a clandestine laboratory. The two most common complaints in adults following exposure to a clandestine laboratory are irritant (eye, skin or mucus membrane) and respiratory difficulties. Evidence of irritation such as caustic burns, redness, swelling, etc. may or may not be apparent. Respiratory compromise, ranging from wheezing due to irritation to pneumonitis from aspiration of hydrocarbon solvents to respiratory arrest from inhalation of gases such as phosphine or cyanide, is possible in a clandestine laboratory. Finally, the child should be evaluated for signs or symptoms of abuse, neglect and nutritional deficit and, if present, further evaluation as deemed necessary should be completed.
Does an asymptomatic child removed from a clandestine laboratory require urgent evaluation in a hospital emergency department (ED)?
Prehospital care providers (EMT’s or paramedics) should evaluate all children removed from a clandestine laboratory immediately to determine if they are truly asymptomatic. A truly asymptomatic child will likely not require immediate evaluation in the ED, but should see a primary care physician within 24 hours of removal from the laboratory for a complete assessment of health and developmental status. All symptomatic children and children not evaluated on scene by emergency medical personnel who are removed from a clandestine laboratory should be evaluated in the closest appropriate hospital ED.
How should a child removed from a drug endangered environment be cared for?
All children removed from drug endangered environments need as much, if not more, love and kindness as any other child placed away from their biological home. Often children in drug endangered environments are witnesses to violence and may even be victims of neglect and abuse. Therefore, they need an environment that ensures as much stability, consistency and safety as possible. Like all children, above all, they need love patience and compassion. Children removed from an environment where illegal substances are manufactured may have some special needs.
What signs and symptoms would a child likely display after being exposed to the environment containing a clandestine laboratory?
These children are usually asymptomatic. Children removed from homes where illegal drugs are being manufactured should be evaluated medically before being placed in care. If this has not occurred, they need to undergo an initial medical evaluation, followed by a complete physical (if not done at the time of the initial evaluation) within 24-48 hours of placement. Most of the children removed from these homes have normal initial medical evaluations. However, because of the potential chemical exposure the child may have had in the home from which they were removed, the caretaker should pay special attention to any respiratory symptoms (difficulty breathing, excessive cough, shortness of breath) as well as changes in mental status (confusion, excessive sleepiness, excessive hyperactivity). Although unlikely, if present these symptoms should be evaluated urgently by a medical provider. If the onset of symptoms occurs greater than 24 hours after the exposure, it likely unrelated to the clandestine laboratory though the child still should be medically evaluated.
Should I have concerns about a child that was removed from a drug endangered home that did not contain a clandestine lab?
These children should be cared for in the same manner as any child that is removed from their biologic home for any reason. All of these children need complete medical evaluations as required by the Department of Social Services. If the child exhibits any abnormal signs or symptoms prior to or following that evaluation, they need to be re-evaluated by a medical provider. Again, homes in which there is drug or alcohol use are often lacking the consistency which children need to thrive. Therefore, providing these children with an environment where there is consistency, compassion and kindness is critical for optimal development.
What should I do with the clothing of children removed from drug endangered environments?
All children that have been removed from homes containing clandestine labs should be decontaminated and dressed in clean clothing prior to placement. Therefore, their clothing is safe. If they have not been decontaminated, all clothing should be removed and discarded and they should be thoroughly washed with soap and water in a warm shower as soon as possible. Also, they should not come into your care with any personal items from their homes (e.g. toys, blankets, etc.) other than those provided by responders on scene or by medical professionals at evaluation. All clothing and personal items including toys contained in a home in which there was a clandestine lab are to be considered contaminated and need to be properly disposed of at the scene. There may be an exception for certain personal items (such as eyeglasses, but not contact lenses!) that may have been cleaned by the professionals on scene. These exceptions would need to be approved by the HAZMAT commander at the scene. The clothing and personal items of children removed from drug endangered environments that do not house clandestine labs should be safe. It is probably a good idea to wash all of the child’s clothing once the child is received. Also, be aware that there have been many cases in which the child’s caregiver has placed drugs and possibly needles/syringes in the child’s toys, diaper bag, or other personal belongings in an effort to hide them. If you find anything suspicious, do not touch the item and call your local law enforcement agency or caseworker immediately.
Under what conditions are children addicted to methamphetamine? What are the symptoms? Will a child experience withdrawal?
It is difficult to know if children living in homes with methamphetamine use can actually become addicted to the drug. Some studies have shown that in homes where methamphetamine is manufactured up to half of the children living there test positive for the drug at the time of removal. In homes with heavy use, studies have shown about 10% of those children test positive for methamphetamine at removal. We do not know how many children actually get the drug into their system at some time while living in these homes. However, a positive screen does not equate with addiction, which is very hard to define in this setting. Symptoms of drug exposure may be rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, high body temperature, and agitation. All of these symptoms should have been assessed for during the initial medical evaluation and may be related to a serious medical condition unrelated to drug exposure. If the child was not evaluated medically before placement and is displaying these symptoms, they should be medically evaluated as soon as possible. There have been no adequately documented cases of true withdrawal in children environmentally exposed to drugs, unless the child actually ingested the drug, was clinically ill, and was evaluated at a medical facility. However, in cases of heavy use, methamphetamine is known to deplete dopamine levels in the brain, ultimately causing the user to become very sleepy and lethargic. If the child displays these symptoms, they should also be evaluated medically. It is possible that mood swings and unusual behavior may be related to the recent changes in the child’s living status or underlying psychological or psychiatric illness and not drug exposure. Finally, there have been reports of caregivers giving children other drugs or medications such as sedatives or antihistamines in an effort to get them to sleep. Therefore, any child that begins to behave unusually or have unexplained symptoms should be evaluated medically. The physical manifestations of withdrawal in an infant are similar to those in an adult.
What behaviors would one expect to see in a child removed from a methamphetamine lab?
The behaviors displayed by these children vary greatly. As the specific environment to which the child was exposed are likely unknown in these children, it is important to use care in determining the level of supervision that these children may need to assure their safety and the safety of others in your home.
What symptoms would one expect to see in an infant that was exposed to methamphetamine before birth?
Infants exposed in utero to methamphetamine are typically very sleepy the first few weeks of life, often not even waking to feed. After the initial period of sleepiness, these infants then become very jittery and irritable, much like a cocaine-exposed infant. The drug can affect the development of any major organ system but these abnormalities would usually be detected at birth.
How would one care for an infant that is drug exposed before birth?
Certainly, you should speak with the infant’s physician about concerns regarding a newborn’s health, as there are many reasons why the child may be excessively sleepy or fussy. If other potentially serous causes are excluded, these infants need an environment that is peaceful and calming. If possible, turn the lights low when the infant is trying to rest. In the first few weeks of life, the baby may need to be awakened for feedings. After that time, try to reduce the amount of unneeded excessive stimulus in the infant’s environment.
Does a child from a clandestine lab pose a toxic risk to me, my children or to other members of my family?
Absolutely not. Once the child removed from the lab has been decontaminated, he or she poses no toxic risk to other persons whatsoever. Depending upon the medical indications, viral studies for hepatitis and/or HIV may be warranted.
Websites with info about Meth:
Meth Report issued by NCDOJ