Toxic Shock

Starting a meth lab takes little skill or cash. The cleanup is another story.

"We allege that the landlord failed to disclose a latent, dangerous defect in the property," says Cathy Klein, Michael's lawyer. "If he didn't make that misrepresentation, we may not be here with this lawsuit. There's nothing in the law that requires him to disclose it was a meth lab."

Other problems are posed by cleanup procedures at motels, which are favored by meth cooks on the go.

"Some motel chains are good about having nationwide contractors to take care of this, at a cost of $5,000 or $10,000 a room," says Goin. "But how many labs get found that don't appear that bad and are just cleaned up by local maintenance, because if they call the police the place is going to get condemned? I can't prove it happens, but it's logical that some of that is going on."

Speed cleaning: North Metro Drug Task Force 
commander Lori Moriarty mandated chemical suits for 
meth-lab raiders.
Mark Manger
Speed cleaning: North Metro Drug Task Force commander Lori Moriarty mandated chemical suits for meth-lab raiders.
Broomfield building official Tom Meyers oversees the 
decontamination of meth-tainted property.
Mark Manger
Broomfield building official Tom Meyers oversees the decontamination of meth-tainted property.

A bill that would have added more teeth to cleanup enforcement died in the state legislature last spring. Although the bill wouldn't have required disclosure of prior meth-lab activity to prospective renters or buyers, property owners are understandably wary of the economic costs involved in tougher standards. "The biggest opposition we had was from the apartment owners' association," says Gerhardt. "Some of our legislators who own rental property joined in."

North Metro posts on its Web site (nmtf.us) the address of every meth lab raided by the task force. Gerhardt believes a statewide registry is needed, along with legal disclosures in property transactions. "We all should have the right to move into a building and not get trace amounts of an illegal substance in our system," he says.

This summer, the Colorado Department of Public Health released a "guidance document" for lab cleanups. Although the guidelines are voluntary, officials hope the standards and procedures it contains will help produce a more uniform approach to the problem statewide. Yet the document notes that its cleanup standard -- a widely adopted threshold for meth residue of .5 micrograms per square foot -- is not health-based. It merely reflects what is a readily achievable level of decontamination: "Currently, there is not sufficient information available regarding the effects of long-term exposure to low concentrations of meth to adequately evaluate chronic minimum risk levels."

Moriarty says she knows of at least one case where retesting of a former lab site a year after it had supposedly been "cleaned" yielded results as high as 1,600 micrograms. To learn more about how the contamination spreads and potential health risks, her task force is now working with National Jewish Medical and Research Center to study the effects of a controlled cook at an old farmhouse in Adams County. With emergency personnel standing by, researchers in Level B suits recently cooked batches of the drug in the sealed house and took various readings afterward.

Although full results of the study won't be available until this fall, Moriarty says the early returns are nothing to sneeze at. "We did a small cook, and the meth residue was everywhere," she says. "I can't imagine anyone living in these homes and not being contaminated."

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