Meth Labs – What’s the big deal?

There are currently hundreds of labs being found in residential properties and hotels throughout Australia each year. It is often the unfortunate truth that the process will end once the police have detected and busted these highly volatile meth labs.

According to the Australian Crime Commission, 449 clandestine drug labs were detected by police in Australia in 2008-2009. Queensland has the biggest problem of all the states, (148 of the 449 labs detected in Queensland), however Western Australia has the fastest growing number of labs each year. Clandestine labs detected on the west coast also tend to be more dangerous, as the manufacturers (‘cooks’) often use a cruder manufacturing method involving ammonia, known as the ‘Nazi/Birch’ method. For more information on how many labs are detected in Australia, check out the latest Australian Crime Commissions report.

It’s important to remember that the above mentioned 449 labs only refer to those that were detected by police, not the number that were in operation. It is assumed that only a small percentage of clandestine drug labs are ever busted by police, and even then approximately 90% of those detected are only found after police are called to the property for other reasons (domestic disturbance, explosion, etc.).

Why do they need to be cleaned up?

If left un-remediated, properties that have been used as clandestine drug labs pose serious health problem to future inhabitants. During the cooking process, dangerous chemical vapours and methamphetamine residues permeate all porous surfaces (gyprock walls, grouting, carpet, upholstery & fabrics, etc.) – it doesn’t matter if the police (or anyone else) clear up all the chemicals away from the cooking area and take them away, it only takes one cooking session for the property to become contaminated.

The chemicals used to cook methamphetamine and the toxic compounds and by-products resulting from its manufacture produce toxic fumes, vapours and spills. Methamphetamine is a crudely concocted drug and be made from varying chemical cocktails, including hazardous chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia, red phosphorous, iodine, lithium. Exposure to low levels of chemicals used to produce methamphetamine can result in headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue. Exposure to high levels of these chemicals can produce shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, dizziness, lack of coordination, eye and tissue irritation and chemical burns (to the skin, eyes, mouth and nose). Corrosive substances may cause injury through inhalation of skin contact, and solvents can irritate the skin, mucous membranes and respiratory trace and affect the central nervous system. Chronic (long term) exposure to these chemicals may cause cancer, damage to the brain, liver, kidney, spleen, and immunologic system, and result in birth defects.

Clan labs are almost always set up in rental properties, meaning that future tenants are at greatest risk. The elderly, the infirm and the very young are often most at risk (young children and babies more so, as they don’t think before they chew on walls or lick the floors, etc.)

What’s the current situation?

Currently there is no legislation in Australia regarding compulsory remediation of these properties. Clandestine drug lab remediation should be the responsibility of the environmental health department of the local council of which the lab is found in. Ideally, once the police bust a lab the contact the local environmental health officer, whose responsibility it is to contact the land owner/property manager, place a cleansing order (or equivalent thereof) on the property and make sure that no one inhabits the property until it has been properly remediated and been deemed fit to live in by an indoor air quality assessor. However, at the moment this is a highly contested issue.

The Attorney General’s office is currently working on national guidelines for the remediation of clandestine drug labs. The guidelines will cover the entire remediation process from the time the police bust the lab, right up until the point that the environmental health officer gives the OK for re-habitation of the property. The last we heard, these were supposed to be released in March 2011.

As can be seen, there’s a lot to this issue and very little awareness about any of it. That’s why Jena Dyco holds our annual Meth Lab Cleanup Conference. The conference is aimed at restorers, air quality testers, property managers/owners, local councils and relevant members from government and law enforcement sectors to educate them about the issue, help them understand their role in the process and network with other professionals who are also involved in the process.

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