The sheer amount of chemicals removed from labs is staggering. Consider Missouri alone. "Since 1998 we've seized 12,354 meth labs, 251,000 pounds of solid waste, and 118,000 pounds of toxic waste," Craig says.
In dealing with toxic chemicals, most meth lab clean-up crews follow general guidelines. In the room where the meth was made, they scrub all surfaces, repaint the walls, replace the carpets and air filters, and air out the property. However, there are no national standards for meth lab cleanups—regulations differ from state to state. And in some states, getting a license to decontaminate a house is as easy as taking a few hours of class and a written test. "There are some bad certification methods out there. You could be a pizza delivery guy, study for a month, pay $250 and be certified," said Joe Mazzuca, a methamphetamine contamination expert and CEO of Meth Lab Cleanup, a nationwide meth-lab-specific cleanup company based in Boise, Idaho. In the Alkinanis’ case, the person who decontaminated their house shirked his responsibility by cleaning too quickly and not using the correct cleaning agents.
And although some states, such as Colorado, Washington and North Carolina, employ effective regulations, some experts think that many may not. In Idaho, for example, a former lab is deemed "clean" when there is less than one tenth of a microgram of methamphetamine per square centimeter in the room where the drug was cooked. If the amount of meth detected is at such a low level, some state regulators think, the precursor chemicals are at low levels too. "We just check for meth," says Jim Faust of Idaho's statewide Clandestine Drug Lab Cleanup Program, based in Boise.
Like Idaho, many states only check for meth in the room where the drug was cooked. This method doesn't account for toxic dust or harmful chemicals that may have traveled to other parts of the house. Another compounding factor is that many states do not require that the person cleaning be professionally trained or licensed in methamphetamine or hazardous waste cleanup.
Of all the toxic chemicals in a meth house, the drug itself is probably the hardest to clean up, but it's actually the least toxic. The precursor chemicals pose the greatest health risk to residents of a former meth lab. When people smoke or shoot meth they face serious health risks, but they usually don't die—they just get high. Many of meth's toxic precursors, if smoked or injected, are lethal.
Even if a meth house is cleaned properly, some contamination experts worry that the toxins may hang around. Glenn Morrison, an engineering professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, questions the adequacy of current meth house cleanup standards, emphasizing their failure to ensure the removal of toxins that are absorbed by the home. "These clean-ups tend to be somewhat superficial when it comes to permanent building materials," he says.
Morrison recently received funding from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to investigate exactly how methamphetamine contamination resides in buildings. He hopes to figure out whether current meth lab cleanup protocols properly address contamination. "Building materials absorb pollutants, even if the materials are not obviously porous or fleecy. This contamination can be re-released, even after the building has been cleaned," Morrison says.
Professional meth house cleanup contractors estimate that about 90 percent of meth houses are never uncovered, and their tenants will likely never know about their homes’ toxicity. Many of the meth houses that are discovered are listed on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) National Clandestine Laboratory Register or on other state databases.