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2005 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 10, No. 2
April 2005

Meth Labs and their Impact on Child Welfare Practice

What are meth labs and how do they affect the safety and well-being of children?

Meth Labs
For many years illegal methamphetamine was made almost exclusively in large batches in “superlabs” on the West Coast and in Mexico. These labs usually used a production process that required hard-to-obtain ingredients and someone with chemistry expertise.

Then, in the late 1980s, new production methods were discovered that made it possible for users without a chemistry background to make meth in small batches in improvised “labs,” using readily-available ingredients. These ingredients often include cold medicine, matches, drain cleaner, and paint thinner. Soon these small-time meth “cooks” were teaching others to make the drug. These “Mom and Pop” or “Beavis and Butthead” labs quickly spread.

Today, although most of the illegal meth sold in the U.S. is still produced in superlabs, most of the labs found by law enforcement are of the smaller variety; of the 8,290 clandestine meth labs seized in 2001, only 303 were superlabs (ONDCP, 2003). As of this writing, all the meth labs seized in North Carolina have been small.

In North Carolina makeshift labs have been found in “homes, apartments, hotel rooms, inside vehicles, and in close proximity to schools and youth organizations” (Wagoner, 2004). These labs are highly mobile; some fit into a duffle bag or the trunk of a car. Some cooks use a method requiring no heat source so they can work in uninhabited areas (Locke, 2001).

Clandestine labs, which can produce the drug in as few as six to eight hours (Swetlow, 2003), generate between five and seven pounds of toxic waste for every pound of methamphetamine (Butterfield, 2004; NCDOJ, 2004). Statistics from California indicate that most “cooks” make meth 48 to 72 times a year (Riverside DEC, 2005).

Effects on Children
According to the National Drug Intelligence Center (2002) the number of children found at seized meth labs in the U.S. more than doubled between 1999 and 2001. Children are found in between 20% (one in five) and 30% (one in three) of meth labs (DEA, 2005; NJMRC, 2004; NCDOJ, 2004). The threats faced by children found in these lab environments include the following.

Chemical Contamination. One of the first studies of the exposures faced by the people living in meth labs was conducted by the National Jewish Medical and Research Center. Researchers gathered data from three controlled “cooks” done in a scientific laboratory, a house, and a motel room, as well as from 15 suspected meth lab sites. One of the study’s authors says, “The chemicals spread throughout the house. The methamphetamine is deposited everywhere, from walls and carpets to microwaves, tabletops and clothing. Children living in those labs might as well be taking the drug directly” (NJMRC, 2004).

Indeed, approximately 35% of children found in meth labs test positive for toxic levels of chemicals in their bodies, including meth (NDIC, 2002; Shaw, 2004). This is probably an underestimate, since “many states do not keep records on children present at laboratory sites or medically evaluate them for the presence of drugs or chemicals” (NDIC, 2002). Many meth lab chemicals can damage vital body organs or cause cancer (Swetlow, 2003).

Mason (2004) explains that children are at increased risk from exposure to the chemicals in meth labs for a number of reasons:

  • Some fumes/gases are heavier than air and so will sink down to the children’s level, increasing their exposure
  • Their skin isn’t as thick as an adult’s, which means they absorb chemicals faster
  • Their metabolisms are higher (faster breathing and heart rates), so they take in and activate toxins faster
  • Children are more inclined to put things in their mouths and to use touch to explore the world
  • Their developing nervous systems are less able to withstand exposure to chemicals

Children most commonly come into contact with meth lab chemicals through inhalation and absorption through the skin. The most dangerous method of contact is ingestion, which can prove fatal (NDIC, 2002). Long-term medical complications of exposure to meth lab toxins can include damage to the lungs, kidneys, liver, eyes, skin, and neurological system (NDIC, 2002; McFadden, 2004).

It is not uncommon for children removed from meth labs to have chemically-induced asthma or pneumonia that often clears up after the children are out of the lab (Shaw, 2004).

Fires and Explosions. Experts report that approximately one in every six meth labs seized by authorities is discovered because of a fire or an explosion caused by careless handling and overheating of volatile, hazardous chemicals and waste and unsafe manufacturing methods (Mason, 2004; Riverside DEC, 2005). Based on an analysis of its local data, the Drug Endangered Children (DEC) Program in Riverside County, California found:

  • The typical meth cook will experience a lab fire at some point within a 36-month period. One-third of cooks experience multiple lab fires.
  • If a fire starts there is a 1 in 5 chance neighbors won’t know; at least 20% of lab fires go unreported.
  • If a lab fire starts, suspects may flee without warning anyone, even their own children.
  • The most likely time for meth production in North Carolina is between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. (Shaw, 2004)

Other Risks. Children in meth labs are at significant risk for abuse and neglect. In addition, loaded firearms are found in easy-to-reach locations in the vast majority of meth labs (Shaw, 2004). Dangerous animals and booby traps designed to protect illegal meth labs pose added physical hazards. Children may even be involved in the manufacturing process, but receive no protective gear (Riverside DEC, 2005).

Effects on Communities
Meth labs have a tremendous impact on communities. Typical cleanup costs for a meth lab are between $4,000 and $10,000 (NCDOJ, 2004). These costs must be absorbed by property owners and local and state government. “Cleanup sometimes involves tearing down a house and hauling it away for incineration” (Lacour & Gregory, 2004). North Carolina has already made it clear that insurance companies will not be responsible for damage caused by meth labs (McFadden, 2003).

Unlike other drugs, meth creates little revenue for law enforcement agencies. Instead of seizing homes and other valuables that can offset interdiction costs, officials are left with costly cleanup and ruined properties.

Meth labs also pose a threat to the general public and the environment. Because clothing and other articles are so easily contaminated by meth production, toxins can quickly spread from one place to another, requiring involved clean-up. Meth cooks often dispose of lab waste by burning it, dumping it in streams, fields, and down toilets, or by simply leaving it behind in hotels, on roadsides, and in other public areas.

The Child Welfare Response
When it comes to child welfare practice around meth labs our goal should be to provide a measured, realistic response that simultaneously takes into account the serious threats posed by meth production AND reflects our fundamental respect for the family and our concern for its well-being and future.

It may sound difficult, but some agencies say that planning and carrying out such a response in the midst of a SWAT-style police raid really is possible.

The new NCDSS children’s services drug endangered child policy covers the many details agencies must take into account in making such a response, including intake screening of meth lab reports, procedures for conducting assessments at lab sites, follow-up interventions, worker safety, and placement provider preparation and safety. The policy also contains numerous assessment tools specifically for responding to a meth lab.

You can find it online at <>.

References for this and other articles in this issue