Local health departments may be called to deal with human health hazards left from meth labs.
Basic information on meth labs and possible human health hazards from exposure to former meth labs is provided below. For more detailed information on the chemicals involved in making meth, local health department involvement, cleanup or sampling techniques, see the [future place for toolkit] DHS Fact Sheet P-47411 (PDF, 1 MB).
What is methamphetamine?
Meth is a stimulant of the central nervous system. The effects of meth are similar to those of cocaine. It gives the user a “rush” or intense feeling of pleasure that lasts longer than cocaine.
Meth is an increasingly popular drug that can be injected, snorted, taken orally, or smoked. Long-term use leads to physical dependence. Meth may cause periods of high energy and rapid speech. Many regular meth users also experience severe depression, delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, and violent behavior.
Meth is typically made in clandestine makeshift laboratories, often in rented apartments, houses, or hotel rooms. During the production of meth, hazardous and flammable chemicals can be spilled or emitted to the air, and there is a risk of fire or explosion.
Never enter an active meth lab. Be alert for odd arrangements of attended or unattended containers of chemicals on a hot pad, chemical mixtures in soft drink bottles, unusual contraptions of tubing and containers, or out-of-place propane containers.
Contact local law enforcement immediately if you suspect a drug lab in your area.
Will exposure to chemicals in a meth lab result in harmful health effects?
While a meth lab is in operation, or before it has been discovered and seized, it presents a high risk for exposure to harmful chemicals. If you discover an active meth lab, do not attempt to enter. Back out and contact your local law enforcement agency immediately.
Many of the chemicals used in the meth “cooking” process can be harmful. Short-term exposures to high concentrations of chemical vapors that may exist in a functioning meth lab can cause severe health problems or even death. For this reason, meth “cooks,” their families, and first responders are at highest risk of health effects from chemical exposure, including lung damage and chemical burns to different parts of the body. Heating solvents inside a building can create a highly flammable situation; meth labs are often discovered when firefighters respond to a fire or explosion.
After the police seize a meth lab and remove the obvious hazards, there is usually still a low exposure risk from chemical residues. Such contamination can pose a health risk and needs to be evaluated and cleaned up. Properties with meth labs often have other serious sanitation and safety issues, such as building structural problems and electrical hazards. Sanitation issues can complicate the assessment of chemical hazard risk. The evaluation by law enforcement and local health departments needs to consider the overall condition of the property.
Residues of methamphetamine and other chemicals remaining at the site of a former meth lab are a concern for people who later use the property. For this reason, local health departments should thoroughly assess the property for hazards before allowing it to be re-inhabited, especially by children.
When a meth lab is discovered in a multiple-unit dwelling, neighbors may be concerned about their exposure to hazardous chemicals while the lab was still active. Neighbors’ risk for exposure is usually very low, but it is important to address any concerns of nearby residents.
Child exposures and child decontamination
When a meth lab is seized and arrests are made, children residing at the meth house are taken into protective custody by Child Protective Services. Chemical exposures of these children are a concern, and there are conflicting opinions over the need to formally decontaminate children when they are taken into custody. DHS concurs with recommendations of the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children (NADEC) that young children should not undergo the trauma of rigorous field decontamination unless medically indicated. The NADEC has developed a protocol for the medical evaluation of children found in drug labs.
Contact DHS for further assistance when dealing with high-production meth labs. For more information on how to recognize a meth lab, contact the Narcotics Bureau of the Division of Criminal Investigations, Wisconsin Department of Justice.
For more detailed information on the chemicals involved in making meth, local health department involvement, cleanup and sampling techniques, see the DHS Fact Sheet P-47411 (PDF, 1 MB).