Researcher Questions Adequacy of Meth Lab Cleanup Methods

When authorities discover a "meth house," they decontaminate it by removing chemicals, getting rid of carpeting, cleaning walls, and airing the place out for a few days. Dr. Glenn Morrison, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, is concerned as to whether such decontamination methods are sufficient to protect future occupants from exposure to methamphetamine and other chemicals.

“Most people who live in a former meth house don't even know it," he said. "And some hotel rooms have also been contaminated."

Recently, Morrison was awarded $116,000 from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to research the interactions between building materials and the chemicals used in methamphetamine labs.

Methamphetamine cooks use a potent combination of ingredients, including ammonia, methanol, ether, benzene, and reactive metals. According to Morrison, the chemicals penetrate into materials like paint, wood, and vinyl flooring and then "slowly come back to the surface over time."

Morrison is concerned that children who make contact with the surfaces will ingest methamphetamine. Also, he says, lingering methamphetamine can be released into the air, where it bonds with tiny chemicals that are floating around. This means it could be inhaled, even months to years after rooms were thoroughly cleaned.

"We want to be comfortable with the cleaning methods," Morrison said. "Are these methods sufficiently protective? How much should people be concerned about living in a former meth house?"

Morrison is leading the Missouri S&T study in conjunction with researchers at the University of Texas-Austin. In order to see how the chemicals interact with building materials, they plan to examine samples taken from homes after a bust and cleanup. According to Morrison, standard decontamination procedures may need to be amended in the future to include additional steps that are more technical.

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