DENVER - Thousands of homes in the Denver area bristle with poisonous chemicals, slowly sickening the unsuspecting occupants who don't know they're living in a former methamphetamine lab.
Colorado has no standards for long-term exposure to the chemicals and little power to force landlords to clean up the volatile sites.
Last year, Colorado drug task forces broke up more than 500 meth labs, seizing the cold capsules, camping fuel, phosphorous, glassware burning on kitchen stoves and basement hot plates.
Left behind were the volatile compounds and off-gases that seep into carpets, mattresses, drapes and, sometimes, drywall.
"Twenty years from now, the true picture will be painted when my co-workers and I are peeing blood for the rest of our lives," said Sgt. Jim Gerhardt of the North Metro Drug Task Force, which busted 72 meth labs last year.
Police estimate that for every lab they close down, they miss 10. "There are 5,000 out there we haven't seized," Gerhardt said.
Most police don respirators and moon suits when they take down a meth lab. Gerhardt worries even more about the next inhabitants of the trailer, motel room or house. Colorado doesn't require the posting of notices of former meth lab houses, nor does it require licensing or training of the companies that try to clean up the mess.
"Landlords can get a fly-by-night company to do a minimal assessment for $200 and declare it clean and safe," Gerhardt said. "Or a motel might paint over things and let people back in. The paint makes it look nice but doesn't remove anything that's contaminated."
The ingredients used to give someone a crystal methamphetamine high sound like they belong in a garage, rather than a kitchen.
- Lithium metal from Duracell or Energizer batteries
- Methyl alcohol
- Lighter fluid, camping fuel, lye, toluene, sulfuric acid, red phosphorus.
A crystal-meth high can last 24 hours and cost about one-tenth the price of cocaine.
It is so addicting that many meth chefs bent on making money selling their handiwork to others end up smoking their whole batches, police say. And thousands of addicts in metro Denver cook the stuff on a stovetop just for their own use.
It's a dangerous recipe.
The goal is to remove oxgyen molecules from phedrine or pseudophedrine cold tablets to turn them into methamphetamine.
The meth chefs also need a source of phosphorous that, with iodine, produces hydriotic acid, a poisonous gas.
It also generates phosphene, an odorless, colorless poisonous gas.
As the mixture cooks, acids and iodine get everywhere, leaving a yellow film on countertops, walls, ceilings.
All the body's organs that act as filters can be harmed by carcinogens and neurotoxins in the poisonous ingredients or the off-gases they produce.
Last year, an Arizona forensics officer exposed to phosphine for 20 minutes suffered dizziness, cough, headache, diarrhea and lung damage, according to the medical journal Clinical Toxicology.
For every pound of crystal meth, 5 or 6 pounds of hazardous wastes are also created. Typically, the stuff is buried in the back yard, where it can leach into groundwater, tossed down the storm sewer where it can dump into a creek and kill wildlife or thrown into the trash.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is starting to look at meth lab ingredients to come up with limits on long-term exposure, said Fred Dowsett, compliance coordinator with the Hazardous Materials division. "But we're not very far along. There is not a lot of information on the long-term effects."
Until Colorado mandates a safe level of toxins - such as Oregon's half-microgram per square foot - landlords likely will find it's cheaper to remove all carpets, furniture and drywall than to pay for testing and sampling mandated by local fire districts, Dowsett said.
"There are what appear to be very large loopholes in this whole meth lab scenario," said Ron West, president of Environmental Property Investigators, a company that cleans up meth properties.