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Understanding Meth
     

How Meth Endangers Children
 

Given the many dangers of meth manufacture and use, it is not surprising that children living in homes with meth labs and meth addicts face multiple threats to their health and safety. Among other threats, children in meth homes face the dangers of chemical contamination; fires and explosions; firearms, explosives, and booby traps; abuse and neglect; dangerous living conditions; and social and emotional problems.

  Chemical contamination
     
  Fires and explosions
     
  Firearms, explosives, and booby traps
     
  Abuse and neglect
     
  Dangerous living conditions
       
  Social and emotional problems
       
Chemical contamination Back to top
 

The chemicals used to cook meth and the toxic compounds and byproducts resulting from its manufacture produce not only toxic fumes, but also vapors and spills. A child living at a meth lab may:

  • inhale or swallow toxic substances or inhale the secondhand smoke of adults who are using meth;

  • receive an injection or an accidental skin prick from discarded needles or other drug paraphernalia;

  • absorb methamphetamine and other toxic substances through the skin following contact with contaminated surfaces, clothing, or food; or

  • become ill after directly ingesting chemicals or an intermediate product.

 

Exposure to low levels of some meth ingredients may produce headache, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue; exposure to high levels can produce shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, dizziness, lack of coordination, eye and tissue irritation, chemical burns (to the skin, eyes, mouth, and nose), and death. Corrosive substances may cause injury through inhalation or contact with the skin. Solvents can irritate the skin, mucous membranes, and respiratory tract and affect the central nervous system. Chronic exposure to the chemicals typically used in meth manufacture may cause cancer; damage the brain, liver, kidney, spleen, and immunologic system; and result in birth defects.

Finally, meth makers often dump toxic meth byproducts outdoors, endangering their own children and others who live, eat, play, or walk in the area.

   
Fires and explosions Back to top
 

Approximately 15 percent of meth labs are discovered as a result of a fire or explosion. Careless handling and overheating of highly volatile hazardous chemicals and waste and unsafe manufacturing methods cause solvents and other materials to burst into flames or explode. Improperly labeled and incompatible chemicals are often stored together, compounding the likelihood of fire and explosion. Highly combustible materials left on stove tops, near ignition sources, or on surfaces accessible to children can be easily ignited by a single spark or cigarette ember. Hydro-generators used in illegal drug production "constitute bombs waiting to be ignited by a careless act."

   
Firearms, explosives, and booby traps Back to top
 

When police bust meth labs, it is not uncommon for them to find explosives and booby traps - including trip wires, hidden sticks with nails or spikes, and light switches or electrical appliances wired to explosive devices. Loaded guns and other weapons in easy-to-reach locations are commonplace and pose a threat to children in meth homes. In some cases, dangerous animals trained to protect illegal meth labs pose added physical hazards, and their feces contribute to the filth in areas where children play, sleep, and eat.

   
Abuse and neglect Back to top
 

Children living in homes with meth labs risk severe abuse and neglect. They sometimes endure physical and sexual abuse by members of their families or others in the home. Parents and caregivers who are addicted to meth commonly become careless, irritable, and violent, often losing their capacity to nurture their children. In these situations, it is quite typical for parents to fail to protect their children from harm and provide for essential food, appropriate sleeping conditions, dental care, and medical care, including immunizations, basic grooming, and proper hygiene.

Some addicted parents fall into a deep sleep for days and cannot be awakened, further increasing the likelihood that their children will be exposed to toxic chemicals in their environment and to abusive acts committed by the other drug users who may be present. Children living at meth lab sites may experience the added trauma of witnessing violence, being forced to participate in violence, caring for an incapacitated or injured parent or sibling, or watching the police arrest and remove a parent.

Many children who live in meth homes also are exposed to pornographic materials or overt sexual activity by or with the adults around them.

   
Dangerous living conditions Back to top
 

Hazardous living conditions and filth are common in meth lab homes. Substandard housing and building code violations are commonplace in meth homes. Children risk getting shocked or electrocuted by exposed wires or as a result of unsafe electrical equipment or practices. Poor ventilation – sometimes the result of windows that have been sealed to keep telltale meth vapors from escaping – increases the likelihood of combustion and the dangers of inhaling toxic fumes.

Moreover, meth homes also often lack heating, cooling, legally provided electricity, running water, or refrigeration. Living and play areas may be infested with rodents and insects, including cockroaches, fleas, ticks, and lice. Individuals responding to some lab sites have found hazardous waste products and rotten food on the ground, used needles and condoms strewn about, and dirty clothes, dishes, and garbage piled on floors and counter tops. Toilets and bathtubs may be backed up or unusable, sometimes because the cook has dumped corrosive byproducts into the plumbing.

The inability of meth-dependent and meth-manufacturing parents to function as competent caregivers increases the likelihood that a child will be accidentally injured or will ingest drugs and poisonous substances. Baby bottles may be stored among toxic chemicals. Hazardous meth components may be stored in 2-liter soft drink bottles, fruit juice bottles, and pitchers in food preparation areas or the refrigerator. Ashtrays and drug paraphernalia – such as razor blades, syringes, and pipes – are often found scattered within a child's reach, even in cribs. Infants are found with meth powder on their clothes, bare feet, and toys.

Finally, the health hazards in meth homes from unhygienic conditions, needle sharing, and unprotected sexual activity may include hepatitis A and C, E. coli, syphilis, and HIV.

   
Social and emotional problems Back to top
 

Children growing up within the chaos, neglect, and violence of a clandestine methamphetamine laboratory environment experience stress and trauma that significantly affect their overall safety and health, including their behavioral, emotional, and cognitive functioning. They often exhibit low self-esteem, a sense of shame, and poor social skills. Their experiences may lead to emotional and mental health problems, delinquency, teen pregnancy, school absenteeism, and failure, isolation, and poor peer relations. Without effective intervention, many of these children will imitate their parents and caretakers when they themselves become adults, engaging in criminal or violent behavior, inappropriate conduct, and alcohol and drug abuse.

Many children who live in drug homes exhibit an attachment disorder, which occurs when parents or caretakers fail to respond to an infant's basic needs or do so unpredictably. These children typically do not cry or show emotion when separated from their parents. Symptoms of attachment disorder include the inability to trust, form relationships, and adapt. Attachment disorders place children at greater risk for later criminal behavior and substance abuse.

For more information on the Illinois drug-endangered children initiative, contact Master Sergeant Bruce Liebe of the Illinois State Police by phone at (217) 785-6623; by e-mail at liebebr@isp.state.il.us; or by mail at 500 Iles Park Place, Suite 104, Springfield, Illinois 62703.

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