Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Meth labs: Do you know the history of your home?

I've been watching the first season of the AMC television series called "Breaking Bad" in which the main character, a high school chemistry teacher, decides to use his chemistry skills to produce high quality methamphetamine with a former student, after he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Why? Because he wants to make sure his pregnant wife and teenage son, who has cerebral palsy, are financially secure once he is gone. I want to point out that while using your chemistry degree to make illegal drugs is bad, this is one of the few (if not the only) instances where a chemist is the main character on a TV series, and he's not your stereotypical nerdy, geeky, white male in a labcoat either. OK, maybe he starts out that way...

Anyway, I recently saw this article in the New York Times, and it's horrifying. I've heard about how once a residence has been the site of a meth lab, it's pretty much uninhabitable. What I can't believe is that such information can be withheld, and people have no idea that they're moving into and living in a toxic waste contaminated home. One homeowner later found out that there were high concentrations of meth on her kitchen countertops -- where she was sterilizing bottles and preparing baby food(!)

According to the article, people who live in these contaminated environments have succumbed to mysterious illnesses -- migraines, kidney disease, respiratory problems -- and pets have died. The fumes and chemicals from methamphetamine production can permeate drywall, carpets, insulation, and air ducts. The cost of cleaning a site can range from $5,000 - $100,000. Some states require cleanup and disclosure at the time of sale of the house's history. This obviously works really well, since one homeowner said that the former owner of their house -- who is now in prison -- had checked "no" on the disclosure form when asked if the house had ever been a meth lab...

Here is a document from the EPA titled "RCRA Hazardous Waste Identification of Methamphetamine Production Process By-products" that describes generally how methamphetamine is made, and it has a surprisingly lengthy list of chemicals commonly found at former meth labs. Here are some nastier ones: sodium/potassium/hydrogen cyanides, dimethyl sulfate, phosphine, sulfur trioxide, thionyl chloride, lead acetate, and the list goes on...

Unfortunately, there are no national standards governing meth contamination, and where there are state laws, the property owner is almost always held financially responsible for the cleanup. The CDC has a list of documents (alphabetically by state) that give a general overview of legislation, ordinances, policies, and regulations regarding methamphetamine, meth lab cleanup, and public health risks.

Do you know the history of your house?

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