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Users Aren't the Only Victims in Meth Lab Situations

This article originally appeared in the March 10, 2008, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Imagine this scene:  A gaunt and disheveled man squats over a bubbling pot on the floor of his kitchen.  Strewn about the room are empty canisters of cooking fuel, along with a few crusted-over spoons and thousands of cold medicine tablets.   Paint thinner, sulfuric acid, lighter fluid and lithium form caustic silver puddles on the floor.  As the mash heats over a camp cooker, the air fills with volatile and poisonous gases.  The risk of explosion or chemical burn is extreme.  Keith is a meth “cook,” and while he and the other characters in this story are fictional, the stories they represent are all-too real.

In the next room, Keith’s 7-year-old son plays video games while his 9-year-old daughter peels back a corner of the black plastic covering the windows. She looks outside to see what’s happening on Green Spruce Lane in front of her house.  The kids are old enough to realize that meth users aren’t the only victims in this environment.

Children at an Increased Risk for Injury
 “As methamphetamine use and production continues to escalate, children are front and center in the risk for injury,” says Anthony Scalzo, M.D., medical director of the Missouri Regional Poison Center and emergency physician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center.  “Physical injury is just the tip of the iceberg.  Children living in homes containing meth labs are in great danger of suffering emotional and psychological trauma, malnourishment, and sexual abuse, and of falling behind in school because of learning disabilities.”

Children living in meth homes full of dangerous airborne irritants are at a higher risk of respiratory problems, including the worsening of asthma, because they have smaller airways that cause a more intense exposure to toxic chemicals.  In addition, meth use increases sexual activity among users and leads to higher incidences of domestic violence, most of which take place in front of children.  Without positive role models, children fail to develop socially, become sexually aware at a young age and often fall into the vicious cycle of addiction that consumes their parents.

“I must say that the majority of kids I see that have been removed from meth homes are okay physically, they show no symptoms,” Dr. Scalzo says.  “But I say that with some reserve, because they are not okay psychologically.”

No One is Immune From Danger
On the other side of Green Spruce Lane, 5-year-old Amber and her mother Julie kick a playground ball around the front yard.   As she stops to catch her breath, Julie spots Amber stooping to pick up a sports drink bottle that has blown over from neighbor Keith’s trash cans.  Recognizing the bottle, Amber instinctively lifts it to take a drink. Julie swipes the bottle from Amber’s hands. Inside the bottle is a corrosive brew of discarded meth solvents, including ether, anti-freeze and iodine.  Had Amber consumed the bottle’s ingredients, she would have been poisoned and required immediate medical attention.

Missouri leads the nation with nearly 25 percent of all meth lab busts, chemical dumpsites and equipment seizures, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Dr. Scalzo cautions parents against falling into a false sense of security just because they live on quiet suburban streets.

“The manufacture of this drug now permeates all parts of our community,” Dr. Scalzo says.  “We can no longer think of rural areas as the only source of this dangerous drug.  Meth is being made right under our noses.”

Recognize the Signs
Jeff has lived on Green Spruce Lane for more than 10 years.  An avid gardener, Jeff spends weekend afternoons pruning bushes and cutting the lawn.  He’s noticed something strange going on at Keith’s house.  Trash seems to pile up rapidly and it contains many odd chemicals.  An acrid odor fills the air every couple of days.

Signs of a meth lab include:

• An abundance of batteries, cold medicine or glass bottles in the trash
• A rotten egg odor or an acrid burning smell
• Windows propped open for ventilation during winter months
• Discarded bottles of cooking fuel

“The byproducts of meth are nearly as dangerous as the production itself,” Dr. Scalzo says.  “Tell your children to stay away from the suspected lab and to never touch any trash that enters the yard or that blows on the street.  Just a little talk with your kids can prevent painful burns or the ingestion of a life-threatening poison.”

If you suspect a meth lab exists near your home, you can make an anonymous call to local law enforcement. 

“If children are present in the home, I’d recommend you call child protective services or the division of family services,” Dr. Scalzo says.  “It’s better to have things checked out.  The worst thing that can happen is that you’ve made an anonymous phone call.  However, if there are actually children in danger, perhaps your call can save the physical or spiritual life of a child.”

Dr. Scalzo is working with physicians in Kansas City to organize a group that would advocate for guidelines on how to treat children who are removed from a meth environment.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. 

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