As more and more metro area libraries test positive for methamphetamine, the City of Denver has decided to establish a formal cleaning protocol for meth contamination at government properties.
"The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment, along with contracted experts in industrial hygiene, are working together with city agencies to formalize that policy. The formal policy will include routine cleaning operations for unknown substances and for viral pathogens, like COVID-19 and influenza. Additionally, the policy will outline when Denver Police or DDPHE need to be consulted. While we expect the policy to be formalized in the next few weeks, we have and will continue to follow the recommended and thorough protocols that have been in place already," says Tammy Vigil, a spokesperson for DDPHE.
The decision to establish this policy comes as libraries in Boulder, Littleton and Englewood had to temporarily shut down after tests turned up meth residue — which can be hazardous, particularly to young children and older adults — in facility bathrooms. All of the closures happened in December and January.
But the fact that meth contamination has been in the news in Colorado much more often lately isn't evidence that the drug is all of a sudden popular after falling out of favor, according to Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center.
"Meth has been just as popular for years. I think fentanyl became sexy to the media. People have been using meth for fun, often with sex and as a survival method for our unhoused neighbors in Denver, especially on cold, snowy nights to walk around the city to not lay down and freeze to death," says Raville, who feels that the focus on meth contamination at libraries shares similarities with reefer madness and the intense media coverage of fentanyl.
"If the drug war had a communications director, she's doing a great job at getting misinformation out there," Raville says.
Boulder Public Library's main branch has since partially reopened following its late-December closure owing to meth contamination, which is regulated by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment. When a building or home becomes contaminated with meth — either from smoking or cooking the drug — the cost of tests and remediation work to get the meth residue below state-law thresholds can be exorbitant.
The Boulder library, for example, has spent $50,000 on testing so far and another $50,000 on cleaning and remediation. And the library still needs to fully remediate the main branch's bathrooms, which will cost an additional $68,000, plus whatever it costs to test the bathrooms and replace contaminated material that has been removed.
"The library hopes to get the restrooms open as quickly as possible. When they do reopen, they won’t be open and freely accessible. Instead, they will be monitored by security and staff, and will remain locked. Users will have to ask a staff or security guard for access," says Annie Elliott, a spokesperson for the City of Boulder, who notes that the city has also spent $15,000 on access control to the restrooms.
After seeing what happened in Boulder, the City of Englewood decided to test its own library and public-facing areas of a municipal building on January 6. The test results came back hot, leading Englewood to close its library, the north lobby of its Civic Center, and the second-floor restrooms of the Civic Center.
Englewood is now working to remediate these areas.
And after both Boulder and Englewood tested for meth in their libraries, the City of Littleton decided to test its own Bemis Public Library on January 13. When the results came back on January 18, they showed meth contamination in the exhausts of the men's and women's bathrooms on the main floor and the gender-neutral restroom on the lower level of the library. Littleton is also remediating these areas and began testing on other parts of the library on January 24.
"We hope to know by the end of the week whether the contamination is confined to the bathrooms, and will use that information to formulate a remediation plan," says Littleton spokesperson David Gilbert.
But while these three municipalities in the metro area have tested their libraries for meth, Denver Public Library has still not done so, nor does it plan to do so.
"As a reminder, the public health risk related to methamphetamine residue is very low. Elevated health concern comes from long-term exposure to properties where methamphetamine was produced because of the chemical reaction that occurs in the production process, or routinely consumed. Denver libraries and other Denver facilities regularly clean restroom surfaces and ventilation equipment to mitigate the spread of diseases and any exposure to unknown substances. As always, it’s best to frequently wash your hands and avoid touching your face in public," says Vigil.
As Raville points out, "Area hospitals are not reporting any cases of people with related health concerns."
And if people don't want others "using drugs in public spaces such as bathrooms and in train stations, we would love their support for overdose prevention sites," Raville says in reference to supervised sites where staff monitor people using drugs to prevent or reverse any overdoses. Denver City Council and Mayor Michael Hancock approved legislation to legalize such sites in 2018. However, the Colorado Legislature, which the City of Denver has been waiting on, has failed to pass similar legislation.
"Overdose prevention sites are legally sanctioned and supervised facilities designed to reduce the health problems associated with drug use, including reducing the number of fatal overdoses. It is a public-health approach to reducing overdose deaths and supporting people who use drugs," Raville adds.