The McMurry children had found possible sites of methamphetamine production months before, but it was the site they found last November that brought Columbia police to investigate the woods adjacent to their home in eastern Columbia, Patrick McMurry said.
He said police told him the paint cans and kerosene containers found in a creek bed were hazardous, so he threw them into a trash bin near his home on St. Charles Road.
“I didn’t want to touch it, but I didn’t want it where my children could find it,” he said.
In the months that followed, his children would find four more sites on their property and in the nearby woods, he said.
Monica McMurry said she has been calling police for months, but they have yet to pick up a container filled with an unknown liquid that her children found in the woods near their house.
The Columbia Police Department has people trained to professionally clean sites that were used for meth production, but the responding officer deemed that the site was not a true meth lab and that a professional cleanup assistant was not needed, Columbia police Capt. Zim Schwartze said.
Schwartze said the responding officer wrote in his report that Patrick McMurry agreed to throw away the items found at the site.
“We take these kinds of calls very seriously, and we have officers trained to clean up properly,” she said.
The incident points to Missouri’s lack of legal standards for determining when a meth-production site is safe for contact by residents and the public. The state has guidelines for how a site should be cleaned but no standards for determining when a site has been adequately cleaned.
That’s because the state does not believe there has been enough research on the health repercussions of occupying former meth labs, even after they have been cleaned, said Michelle Hartman, a Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services representative.
“Even though we are aware that there might be low levels of chemical remaining in residence, we don’t know whether these low levels of chemicals would cause adverse health effects,” Hartman said.
Hartman said that it’s ultimately the responsibility of landlords or property owners to follow the state’s cleanup guidelines, Hartman said. However, they are not legally required to cleanup, leaving renters and buyers at potential risk of encountering residual levels of chemicals at the property.
John Martyny, an associate professor at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, said that even after cleanup, meth chemicals can still be present that can then cause pulmonary damage and peripheral nerve compression to occupants.
How the chemicals affect occupants in the long term is unknown, but cancer and asthma are possible results, Martyny said.
He said how long the meth chemicals remain within a building structure is not known, either, and depends on how much meth production took place.
“We know it won’t dissipate in six months,” Martyny said. “Solvent levels will get lower, but the amount of methamphetamine on all surfaces stays for months.”
Leading Martyny to his conclusion in his research in 2003, in which he detected meth chemicals on nearly every surface of 14 meth labs in Colorado.
Matyny said he detected meth levels ranging from 300 to 16,000 micrograms per 100 square centimeters in the labs.
Among the most common chemicals found in the labs were hydrogen chloride, iodine, phosphane and methamphetamine itself, Martyny said.
He said young children are at the greatest risk in former meth labs because they have a tendency to “explore with their mouths.”
Washington and Oregon were the first states to create a comprehensive program that handles meth lab cleanup, said Paul Marchant, public health adviserfor Washington state’s Clandestine Drug Lab Program.
Marchant said that in rare situations property owners can do the cleanup themselves with strict oversight by legal authorities, but most often, a state-certified contractor is called in for the cleanup.
He said for a structure to be deemed safe, there can be no more than .1 micrograms of methamphetamine per 100 square centimeters on the surface wipe area.
Marchant said the system is put in place to protect the health property owners.
Oregon cleanup requirements are similar except for a slightly different chemical level testing, which requires structures to be found with no more than .5 micrograms of methamphetamine per 100 square feet, said Brett Sherry, of the Drug Lab Cleanup Program in Oregon.
“By taking a low standard on meth itself in cleanup, then anything else that would have been there would have been removed as well,” Sherry said.
Colorado came up with its standard of .5 micrograms of methamphetamine per 100 square centimeters after toxicologists determined at what level chemicals are harmful to infants, small children and women of childbearing age, said Colleen Brisnehan, environmental protection specialist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The large-scale meth labs found in California and Mexico are rare in Missouri, but smaller labs are common, Boone County Sheriff’s Detective Britt Shea said.
Preparing Shea and his colleagues for meth cleanups are the state’s hazardous material operator training program, which teaches deputies how to safely handle confiscated meth materials and transport them to collection agencies.
The deputies are also given chemical-resistant boots and gloves, to protect against the splashing of chemicals, and air-purifying respirators, which protect against harmful gas.
“Most of the chemicals you would find in your household,” Shea said. “But if we think there is anything dangerous or outside my level of expertise, then I don’t hesitate to call the (Boone County) fire department.”
Shea said that situations like that are rare and that in most cases the entire contents of a meth lab can be collected in large plastic container.
“I have never gotten sick. I am really careful with the stuff,” Shea said. “Based on the information I have received I believe I am protected against long-term effects.”
What he does think about is the untrained police officer who may unwittingly encounter a meth lab during a traffic stop.
“The road officers have to be careful that they have permission to open it up,” Shea said. “There have been incidents where cops have been permanently disabled.”
Afraid of the woods
The McMurrys haven’t come across any makeshift labs in their back yard or the adjacent woods in months. But the chemical container has yet to be picked up, and the McMurry children are reluctant to play in the woods again.
“Now they are petrified going into the woods,” said Monica McMurry. “It is kind of sad that they have to worry about find a meth lab.”
It is sad also that they worry about the “meth man,” whom she said she met in July 2004 after she picked up a backpack full of meth supplies he had dropped.
“He said I would never see it (the backpack) or him again,” Monica McMurry said.
Several months later her 16-year-old son found the same backpack rolled up in fencing, she said.
“So much for never seeing it again,” she said.
The incidents have left Monica McMurry wondering why the police didn’t cleanup up the sites and whether the chemicals found in the creek bed made their way into Hominy Creek.
But one thing troubles her most:
“It is eerie thinking about how close they came to our house.”