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Monday, July 2, 2012

Meth Lab Contaminated Homes: The Toxic Business of Cooking Methamphetamine

     Methamphetamine is an addictive, synthetic stimulant that causes the brain to release a surge of dopamine that, depending upon how it is ingested, and its potency, creates a high that lasts from a few minutes to 24 hours. Meth comes in two forms, powder and rock. The powder can be snorted, smoked, eaten, or dissolved into a drink. Rock, the crystalized form of the drug, is usually smoked or injected. One hit costs the meth user between $25 and $80. There are 1.4 million users of methamphetamine in the United States, and this number is rising.

     Meth is addictive because it depletes the brain of dopamine. Once this happens, users are unable to experience pleasure without the chemicals. Addicts who try to quit become depressed, and in some cases, psychotic. The prolonged use of meth permanently destroys the brain, and can cause heart attacks and strokes.

     Manufacturing or "cooking" meth is a multi-step operation that takes 48 hours to complete. The process produces toxic fumes, and there is always the potential for an explosion. There are a handful of large, commercial super labs, and thousands of small home laboratories. Super labs, like the one featured on the AMC TV series "Breaking Bad," are staffed by trained chemists who purchase the key ingredients--ephedrine and pseudoephedrine--in bulk from chemical suppliers. A super lab can manufacture more than 100,000 does per cook.

     Amateur meth cooks who operate home labs use chemicals derived from over-the-counter cold, cough, and allergy medicines. These shade-tree chemists acquire ingredients such as ammonia and lye from everyday household items. For example, they can obtain red phosphorus by scraping it off matches. The operator of a home meth lab can only produce about 300 doses a cook, enough product for himself and a few sales.

     The vast majority of meth factories raided by narcotics officers are amateur operations. In 2011, drug enforcement agents in the U.S. seized 10,287 residential meth labs. (One of the largest meth lab raids occurred in San Jose, California where, in March 2012, DEA agents seized 750 pounds of meth with a street value of $34 million.) Because of the highly toxic nature of meth production, these sites have to be professionally scrubbed.

     The government spends about $200 million a year de-contaminating meth labs. But not all of the homes that were once meth labs are sanitized, and some of them go on the real estate market. People who move into these places become very sick. As a result, about half of the states have passed residential meth lab disclosure laws.

The Bates Family

     Unfortunately for John Bates, his wife Jessie, and their 7-year-old son, the state of Washington didn't have a meth disclosure law in 2007 when they purchased a house for $235,000 in Suquamish, a town near Seattle. Shortly after moving into the dwelling, their son Tyler developed breathing problems. Mr. Bates developed a variety of unexplained symptoms, and his wife kept getting horrible skin rashes. The family and their physicians didn't have a clue what was causing these ailments until a neighbor, 18 months after the onset of the illnesses, casually mentioned that the former occupant of the home had made his living cooking meth.

     A state inspection of the Bates home revealed that toxic chemicals had soaked into the carpets, walls, studs, and flooring. Instead of shelling out $90,000 to replace the contaminated areas of the house, the Bates demolished the place and built a new home on the two-acre lot. The project cost them $184,000. Today, the Bates are healthy, and the state of Washington has a residential meth lab disclosure law.  

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