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18 May 2010: John Martyny

Cooking Meth With Kids in the House: The Dark Side of Chemistry

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Dr. Martyny has written about his work:

Our research has indicated that very high levels of toxic chemicals are produced during methamphetamine “cooks”; and that hazardous chemical exposures can be expected to persist in rooms and buildings for an extended period of time. In order to obtain exposure data, we collaborated with agents and chemists working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who conducted controlled methamphetamine “cooks” while we measured the chemicals being released.

Our research was designed to determine the potential chemical exposures to law enforcement and emergency services personnel responding to clandestine methamphetamine laboratory seizures. As our research continued, however, we became increasingly concerned, as well, about the potential exposures to third party individuals that were incidentally exposed to these laboratories. Chief among these are concerns over the health and well-being of the children associated with these laboratories. Approximately 1/3rd of the methamphetamine laboratories investigated by law enforcement involve children. In addition, there have been instances of families unknowingly moving into a building that had previously been a methamphetamine laboratory. The occurrence of a clandestine “cook” was only evident after significant lung problems were diagnosed in the children.

Our studies indicate that methamphetamine production and use will have far-reaching effects upon the individuals using this drug, their children, others in the vicinity, and even individuals moving into the “cook” areas well after the cook has moved on to another area. It is unlike the use of many drugs in that there is not only an exposure to the drug itself, but also to the hazardous and toxic chemicals used for the drug’s production. It is almost a given that the following will occur:

•The cook and anyone assisting the cook will be exposed to a number of chemicals (phosphine, hydrogen chloride, iodine, anhydrous ammonia, and solvents) at levels that are above those allowed by law in occupational settings and, in some cases, above those levels determined to be “immediately dangerous to life and health”.

•Third party bystanders, including children and infants, are likely to be exposed to levels of those same chemicals that may cause severe and long-lasting health concerns. This is especially true of children and infants who are rapidly growing and more susceptible to chemical exposures in the home environment.

•Law enforcement, fire, and emergency services personnel may be exposed to high levels of these chemicals as they investigate clandestine methamphetamine laboratories. This is especially true if they enter an area where a laboratory is in operation but also may be true if the laboratory is not in operation at the time. Residual chemicals deposited on surfaces of the house as well as boxes of chemicals stored in the house may result in significant exposures to investigating personnel.

•The area used to produce methamphetamine and surrounding areas will be contaminated with a number of chemicals including hydrogen chloride, iodine, solvents, and the methamphetamine itself. Levels of these compounds may remain in the area for an extended period of time (at least 6 months) and may result in exposures to individuals that were not associated with the “cook” and, in fact, never knew of the existence of the methamphetamine production.


John W. Martyny, PhD, CIH, is Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at National Jewish Health and also holds an appointment in the University of Colorado School of Public Health. He received his BS degree from The Ohio State University, an MS from Humboldt State University in California, and a PhD from Colorado State University. His research interests include Industrial Hygiene, environmental exposures and methods of controlling those exposures, and methamphetamine effects upon exposed children. He has done very significant work on the health effects and chemistry of beryllium exposure, which is a regional problem since the world’s largest mine of this rare metal is in Utah. A single exposure to the dust can cause life-long inflammatory disease of the lungs. His work has ranged as far as studies of lead exposure in people using indoor firing ranges, “lifeguard lung,” ventilation systems in elementary schools, and the results of exposure to diacetyl, the chemical that gives popcorn its artificial butter flavor.

In testimony to the US Congress, Dr. Martyny stated: "Our nation faces an unprecedented epidemic of clandestine methamphetamine drug manufacturing. Seizures of methamphetamine drug laboratories continue to rise, putting police and fire first responders at risk for a variety of hazards. For example, the number of seizures in my home state of Colorado has risen dramatically from 31 laboratories in 1998 to 687 laboratories in 2002. First responders and susceptible third parties, especially children, are at risk for exposures to the chemical hazards as well as the fire, explosion, and safety hazards inherent with the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine. Unfortunately, very little research has been conducted regarding the specific exposure hazards associated with illegal methamphetamine manufacture."

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