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States confront meth-lab threat to environment

Do-it-yourself labs can turn homes into hazmat zones. Some US states have enacted laws to address the risks.

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Hotel rooms, apartment complexes, and homes aren't your typical toxic waste sites. But then, methamphetamine isn't your typical drug.

The drug – which makers often cook up in their kitchens using household chemicals and tools – is potent enough to transform homes into hazmat zones. When law officers bust a meth lab, the drugmaking materials are carted away. But what happens next to such former sites – numbering more than 100,000 across the country – varies dramatically.

Some states, led by Colorado, have enacted tough regulations that require former lab sites to undergo a formal safety assessment – and more cleanup, if needed – before they can be reinhabited. The laws are prompted by the extreme toxicity of the chemicals used to cook meth, and suspicions about the long-term effects of chemical remnants in the air and on surfaces. Other states mandate home sellers to disclose the presence of former meth labs.

The patchwork of state approaches reflects the uneven spread of the drug, the potential costs of cleanup, and concerns about setting safety standards in the absence of definitive scientific research, experts say.

"Until we fully understand what the potential health effects can be, we feel that it's better that states are more proactive as opposed to reactive," says Shawn Arbuckle with the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver. Better safe than sorry, he adds.

Cooking meth just once contaminates a building with traces of acids and iodine in the air, as well as large amounts of meth on surfaces ranging from sofas to ventilation ducts, according to research done at National Jewish. Hydrochloric acid is an irritant to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract, and iodine can trigger asthmatic reactions, says Mr. Arbuckle.

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