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Meth labs can leave long-lasting health hazards

| Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012

One morning in March, Betty Knepshield of Apollo looked out of her North Sixth Street home to view what looked like a scene from a movie.

Emergency vehicles blocked the street. Police and state drug agents, some wearing hazmat suits, moved in and out of the house across the street. They were dismantling a clandestine methamphetamine drug laboratory operated by the home's resident, Brandon Watterson.

"I didn't know he was making it there," Knepshield said, still incredulous.

Also oblivious to the illegal activity was Judy Carrico, who lives across the alley from the now-vacant, two-story frame house. She said the lab — and its cat urine-like odors produced by meth "cooking" — weren't obvious.

"No, I couldn't smell anything," she said. "The windows were always shut."

Now, neighborhood residents are concerned about what will happen to the house — and with good reason.

Chemicals used in making meth can contaminate the structures themselves. The substances can include toluene, contained in brake cleaner, sulfuric acid from drain cleaners and anhydrous ammonia from farm fertilizers, to name a few.

Chemicals such as those are combined with ephedrine or psuedoephedrine, drugs found in cold medications, then heated or "cooked" to create methamphetamine.

Real danger

According to Allegheny County Health Department guidelines for meth lab cleanup, contamination can be embedded in the walls and floors and harmful to humans and pets.

"When you look under federal regulations, a clandestine lab site would be a hazardous waste site," said Dave Ellis, agent in charge of the Pennsylvania Attorney General's methamphetamine lab program. "There is (no law) in Pennsylvania or any community in Pennsylvania that really regulates cleaning these sites up. We have a responsibility to put a notice on them — that this was a clandestine lab site — and that, by federal law, it is a hazardous waste site."

When law enforcement officials raid meth labs, their primary concern is eliminating the immediate danger, i.e. poisonous and/or combustible chemicals.

"They usually have cleanup teams with the attorney general and the state police," said Dan Stevens, Westmoreland County's deputy emergency management coordinator. "These guys are specialized in the removal of these types of chemicals. Our hazmat team will back up their team in removing the stuff in case something goes wrong."

Bob Ferguson, senior hazmat coordinator for McCutcheon Enterprises of Allegheny Township, a private contractor specializing in the disposal of hazardous materials, said his company does not do the actual dismantling of labs.

"Typically, we don't go in the houses. The police bring the materials out to us," he said.

Cleanup not required

Even after the chemicals are hauled away, the contamination in the structure and furnishings such as cabinets and countertops remains.

Ellis said authorities don't do that type of cleanup, leaving it to the property owner to hire a qualified contractor for the job. He said he has never witnessed such a cleanup firsthand.

"I've seen videos of this where they are cleaning houses," he said. "They take the carpet up. They take the plaster up three or four feet (from the floor). They clean the studs inside the walls with a cleaning solution. Plaster board will absorb different chemicals, too, as well as the wood if it gets to it."

"It's the volatile organics that are the real problem for (decontaminating) something, cleaning," Ferguson said. "Acids and caustics can be neutralized. But the volatile organics, they are going to permeate the furniture. They are going to permeate wood. If it gets into the drywall, it can permeate into that and you would have to cut some of that out."

McCutcheon Enterprises is among a few companies in the state qualified to do that type of remediation.

Ferguson said they left information on their services at the meth lab sites in the Alle-Kiski Valley but have not been contracted to clean any. He said the only former meth labs they have cleaned up were some public housing units around Erie.

"The problem here in Pennsylvania is that there is no law that says you have to clean up these messes," he said. "No one is out there looking to enforce anything."

Hazards in waiting

As a result, the properties can be a health hazard in waiting for whoever moves into them.

The Allegheny County Health Department guidelines state that the contaminants can cause health problems that include headaches, dizziness, nausea, skin and eye irritation and burns. They say benzene, a volatile organic compound often used in meth production, can cause cancer.

Also, the guidelines warn: "Exposure to meth residues may cause symptoms similar to those experienced by meths users. Meth affects the central nervous system and will increase heart rate and blood pressure, giving the user a euphoric feeling but with deadly side effects. Meth residues may be fatal to young children."

The chance that children could suffer health effects is most disturbing to Ferguson.

"A lot of these houses, a lot of these places, you could see where kids have lived there — and that is a shame," he said.

Law enforcement officials found two preteen children living in a Parks Township house along Garvers Ferry Road owned by Thomas and Jessica Conrad when they raided a lab there on March 24. Watterson's 4-year-old son lived with him in the Apollo house.

"The kids, they were having health issues," Ellis said. "They were having sinus issues, which is consistent with exposure in the lab."

While the terms "laboratory" or "lab" might invoke images of people in white coats working in a controlled, sanitary environment, Ferguson said the clandestine labs are anything but.

"Once they get hooked on this stuff, they don't really care about anything except using it more," he said. "They don't worry about cleaning up the house.

"They are not making it in lab equipment, they are making it in pots and pans and dishes, and they are laying all over the place," Ferguson said. "It is like kids in kindergarten getting into finger paints — they're spilling stuff all over the place."

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