March 1, 2008 Industrial hygienists developed a quick swab test to identify dangerous residue of toxic chemicals left behind in the creation of homemade methamphetamine. This test works like a pregnancy test. Swabbing the suspected surface leads to a color change if meth is detected, allowing for safety precautions and immediate clean-up when necessary.
The country continues to face residual problems from methamphetamine labs -- makeshift laboratories pose dangers to both the public and police. But now, a new tool that works like a home pregnancy kit can detect dangerous drugs on-the-spot.
It can happen even in your neighborhood -- illegal drug labs pop up everywhere.
Criminals cook up methamphetamine, or meth, leaving a dangerous residue behind. This puts police, fire and other first responders unknowingly at risk of exposure to these toxic chemicals.
"They are very carcinogenic substances. The gases are very carcinogenic," says Patrick Murphy, a detective at the North Metro Drug Task Force in Thornton, Colo.
But now, a handy test called "meth check" has been developed by industrial hygienists at the centers for disease control (CDC).
First, the contaminated surface is swabbed. The sample is treated with chemicals and much like a small home pregnancy test, a color change confirms meth is present. Meth is made with common household products that when combined can be deadly.
"The advantage to this is you're not waiting for lab tests. You are not waiting for the report that the lab sends back to you, which can take anywhere from three days, to five days to a week," says Eric Esswein, Senior Industrial Hygienist at the CDC.
"It would be a great tool for law enforcement to use to go in get some presumptive samples," says Murphy.
Meth check is helping officers stay safe to do their job. The test has also been used by landlords, real estate agents -- anyone who wants to know if meth is present. The CDC has also developed a second test called "meth alert" where the wipe changes color.
WHY IS A FAST TEST IMPORTANT? Methamphetamine can be produced almost anywhere, from a wide variety of household chemicals and other materials, and the production can create extremely toxic environments. When law enforcement and medical personnel respond to emergencies at a location they need to know if they are at risk of exposure to dangerous fumes and residues.
WHY IS METHAMPHETAMINE RESIDUE DANGEROUS? Because so many different components can be used to create methamphetamines, the amount of danger to someone exposed varies widely. The danger depends on what specific chemicals were used, the amount of time a person is exposed, and also the health of the person being exposed. Dangerous items, such as drain cleaner, paint thinner, and road flares may be used in the concoction of methamphetamines. Exposure to residues of the drug can cause symptoms similar to what a user would experience, and inhaling the raw components can cause everything from respiratory irritation, headaches, and nausea, to kidney damage and birth defects. Some components, like benzene, are known to cause cancer.
WHY IS IT DANGEROUS TO USE METHAMPHETAMINES? Methamphetamines are extremely addictive. They make users feel more alert and focused and lessen or eliminate fatigue and appetite. In addition to acting as a stimulant, methamphetamine alters the system that controls how people experience pleasure, including the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Repeated use can lead to a condition called anhedonia, in which these systems break down, causing the user to become increasingly depressed without the drug, because no experience can match the feeling of pleasure brought on by the drug.
Because of this, users become dependent on it, foregoing other activities to focus on obtaining and taking the drug. In addition, interrupting regular use causes prolonged depression as well as physical withdrawal syndromes in a vast majority of cases. Use of methamphetamines also tends to lead to users to neglect their hygiene, often causing severe damage to their teeth.
The American Industrial Hygiene Association contributed to the information contained in the video portion of this report.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.