Methamphetamine lab children – exposed to drug fumes

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In New Zealand there is a big methamphetamine problem.  In the years from 2000 to 2009 the number of clandestine laboratories found and raided by Police increased from 9 to 135.  In a third of these cases there are either children present when raided or who live at that address.  At ESR I was asked to help test whether these children had been exposed to the drug.

Between 2008 and 2010 we were sent hair samples from 52 children, aged from 2 months to 15 years.  All of these children had been removed from houses used as methamphetamine labs or had been taken into care after their parents/careres had been arrested for manufacturing meth.


Methamphetamine is a Class A, Schedule 2 drug in the UK .  That means the penalty for possession is up to 7 years in jail and an unlimited fine, whilst for dealing the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.  Methamphetamine may be used by snorting, injecting or commonly smoking and is often called ‘meth’, ‘ice’ or in NZ ‘P’.  It is abused to give euphoric feelings, but this only lasts for a few hours before users need another hit.  According to the UK Home Office latest figures 22 000 people aged 16 to 59 used meth in the year 2011/12 whilst 326 000 have tried it at some pint in their lifetime.


The clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine is a dangerous process.  There are explosive and corrosive fumes produced, which linger long after manufacture has stopped.  It is not unknown for houses to explode if the ‘cooks’ aren’t very careful!  When teams are cleaning out the labs, swabs taken from the walls have revealed high levels of various chemicals and meth to be present.  The drug is also present on curtains, carpets, furniture and other surface, all of which are accessible to children. Therefore these children may be exposed through the smoky fumes produced or through contaminated objects in the house.


The effects of methamphetamine on these children can be the same as for adult users.  They would gradually develop tolerance and addiction.  This clip below from 3 News in NZ shows Dr Paul Quigley of Wellington regional Hospital explaining these effects (as well as yours truly in a lab coat): 3 News


These hair samples were submitted to ESR and analysed using LC-MS.  This page gave a short guide on how drugs may be incorporated into the hair, and the steps in analysis.  They were cut so we had the last six months of exposure history where possible.  The samples were also analysed for the presence of possible external contamination.


When analysed we found that 73 % of the samples were positive for methamphetamine at a level above the usual reporting threshold for adult users.  There were several more which showed traces of meth below this threshold limit (between the limit of detection and the limit of quantitation), leading to 90 % having some evidence of exposure.  We co

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.