The manufacture, distribution and use of methamphetamine generate a variety of health and medical concerns. Some of the health risks directly affect those involved in production, delivery or use while others are more indirect and affect others who are not directly involved with the drug. Some of the health related affects are immediate while others are more closely related to long term or chronic use. The manufacture, distribution and use of methamphetamine create risks for cookers, users, family members, friends & neighbors, law enforcement officers and innocent bystanders. While many drug users claim their usage doesn’t really hurt anyone, they are sadly mistaken. We hope the materials presented in this section will help you identify the wide range of health issues associated with methamphetamine.
How is Meth Introduced into the Body?
Meth can be introduced into the body in one of four ways: smoked, snorted, orally ingested or injected. The preference of consumption method varies by region, age and by type of meth. In the Midwest, crank is frequently smoked through a pipe, by wrapping it in foil and snorting the vapors as the foil is heated or by “hot rolling” (liquefying meth in an eyedropper and inhaling the vapors). Snorting meth is more popular on the west coast and in some of the urban centers of the Midwest. In Hawaii, where ice is more popular, the crystallized form of meth is generally smoked. Most law enforcement officials indicate that intravenous injection is generally an indicator of prolonged use and addiction.
Meth's Affect on the Human Body
Chemically, it is similar to adrenaline, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland. The use of meth results in increased energy and alertness, a decreased need for sleep, and a decrease in appetite. Originally, it was intended for use in decongestants and bronchial inhalers. Although somewhat limited, other medical uses include treatment for narcolepsy, obesity and attention deficit disorder (ADD).
The number of negative effects far exceeds the limited medical uses. These include but are not limited to hyperactivity; disturbed sleep patterns, irritability, paranoia, aggressive behavior, shortness of breath, involuntary muscle movements, malnutrition and severe depression with suicidal tendencies. Long-term usage may lead to fatal kidney and lung disorders, brain damage, liver damage, stroke, lowered resistance to illnesses and permanent psychological problems.
According to Dr. Alan Leshner, Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, meth is one of the most phenomenally addictive drugs. Contrary to popular opinion, addictive drugs do not necessarily lead to physical withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them. Withdrawal from use of meth generally results in depression, sadness and a continued craving for the drug. Unlike alcohol and heroin, it does not generate shaking, cramps, gastrointestinal problems or other physical symptoms associated with withdrawal. More importantly, continued use of methamphetamine results in a more compulsive and uncontrollable desire for the drug to the point of rendering the meth user powerless over his or her addiction. This insatiable appetite for the drug affects the user’s health, personal relationships, family, career and behavior.
Risks in Production
In the previous section we explained the process of how methamphetamine is produced and identified several of the precursor chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Some of the more caustic, toxic or poisonous chemicals used in the meth process include acetone, alcohol (gasoline additives or rubbing), brake cleaner (toluene), engine starter (ether), drain cleaner (sulfuric acid), iodine, anhydrous ammonia, lye (sodium hydroxide), and muriatic acid. Although many of these items are readily accessible in your local grocery store, they pose serious health hazards if ingested, can create dangerous gases, fire or explosions if mixed improperly, and if handled or stored improperly can lead to serious health hazards. Some of the side effects associated with the chemicals used in manufacturing methamphetamine include chemical pneumonia, sore throat, throat cancer, fainting and nausea.
Meth cookers are not noted for their safety consciousness. A very small portion wear breathing apparatuses during manufacture of the drug. Those who don’t are exposed to phosphine gas, a World War I nerve agent, released during the cook. In addition, most cookers learn the process and obtain their recipe by word of mouth, off the Internet or by apprenticing with another cook. Few, if any, of the cooks fully understand the chemical properties of the precursor chemicals and the risks of fire and explosion are high.
The use of anhydrous ammonia in the Nazi Method of manufacturing creates specific health problems. As we noted previously, anhydrous is not available to most meth cookers and they are forced to steal or barter from someone else who has stolen the anhydrous. Anhydrous ammonia, commonly used for agricultural purposes, is stored under pressure as a gas in sealed tanks. The anhydrous liquefies when mixed with air. When anhydrous ammonia contacts the skin it chemically absorbs the moisture from the skin and results in a burn similar to frostbite. High volume contact can result in serious burns and even death. Inhalation of anhydrous can cause severe lung damage and contact with the eyes may lead to a loss of vision.
Anhydrous thieves will employ any means available to penetrate pressurized storage containers and have been know to transport liquid anhydrous in buckets, coolers and other unsafe vessels. This lack of concern for safety places the anhydrous thief at great risk. In fact, anecdotes run rampant about meth cookers who have been severely burned or injured while attempting to steal anhydrous. In addition, law enforcement officials and unsuspecting citizens are also at risk when they come upon an active or partially disposed meth lab.
Some meth cookers have realized that law enforcement officials frequently maintain surveillance over anhydrous tanks and have began bartering with meth users and juveniles as a means of minimizing their legal risks when obtaining the necessary precursor ingredient. Reliance on unsuspecting juveniles and incapacitated meth users probably increases the potential for anhydrous related injuries. Even more shocking, some cooks are now attempting to produce their own anhydrous ammonia.
Risks Associated with Use of Meth
Several health risks, both direct and indirect are associated with meth use. The choice of method used to introduce the drug to the body may have specific health consequences. Intravenous drug users have an increased risk of transmitting HIV and hepatitis B and C. Chronic intravenous users may also suffer from collapsed veins. Accidental consumption is a real but slighter risk. Small children can be quite curious and may inadvertently inhale or ingest powdered meth or meth that has been compressed into pills.
The most visible health affects associated with meth are the adverse consequences (short and long term) that stem from actual use of the drug. Meth’s ability to increase metabolism and suppress appetite attract some users. Unfortunately, their desired weight loss is uncontrolled and may leave them gaunt, weak and vulnerable to other illnesses.
Some users prefer meth to other drugs because of its long lasting and intense “high.” Because methamphetamine is a stimulant it strongly affects the central nervous system and one’s motor skills. Users who are under the influence suffer from errors in judgment and are at increased risk of being involved in accidents. Other negative impacts include memory loss, pupil dilatation and sleep loss (also related to some accidents). Meth users also frequently suffer from paranoia, depression and irritability.
Meth’s ability to provide users with newfound and long-lasting energy is related to its ability to increase heart rate, respiration and change body temperature. While the user is enjoying this surplus of energy he or she may suffer heart spasms, chest pain, hypothermia, hypertension and convulsions.
Some of the health risks associated with meth are indirect and may negatively affect unsuspecting or uninvolved parties. Recent research indicates that women who continue to use meth during pregnancy have a higher frequency of premature birth, low birth weight, cerebral infarctions and congenital anomalies. The use of meth during pregnancy impacts the fetus by reducing blood flow or by a direct toxic effect on the developing fetal brain.
Another indirect impact relevant to children is the detectable levels of meth found in the urine of children who have been exposed via side stream (second hand) smoke. Manufacturing or consuming meth via smoking in the presence of children may put them at risk to this type of exposure.
Other indirect risks to children include physical and emotional neglect and abuse. Addicted parents may sacrifice the basic care of their family for the drugs. Investigators frequently remove children from their addicted parents because of poor living conditions. The compulsion of the drug and the aggressive states associated with “tweaking” also has been linked to the physical abuse of children.
Chronic use of meth can result in serious health risks. Long-term users have a higher incidence of kidney failure, strokes, liver damage and heart problems. Quite simply, the human body is not strong enough to tolerate the increased metabolism for long periods nor is it able to “filter” out the toxic ingredients of meth. As a result, organs tend to weaken or are poisoned from heavy meth use and some users die prematurely.
A discussion of meth-related health risks must include overdose (toxic psychosis) and addiction. Humans differ in their tolerance for foreign substances. Some individuals can overdose on a small amount of the drug while others experience a greater high. Medically, it is unlikely that any human has a complete tolerance for the drug thus making the risk of overdose a constant. We also noted that meth was highly addictive. Again, the addiction curve will vary individually but consistent and prolonged use is extremely likely to result in addiction.
The potential for fire in the manufacture of methamphetamine is inordinately high. We previously noted the volatile nature of many of the precursor chemicals. The inappropriate mixing of chemicals and the exposure of some of these substances to heat can and has resulted in explosions and fires. Most law enforcement officials have anecdotes about meth-related fires resulting in serious injury or death.
The chemical reactions created in the processing of meth often release toxic and combustible fumes. Most meth cookers attempt to conceal their lab and will cook in a fairly enclosed area. Under these conditions, combustible fumes can’t escape and pilot lights or light switches can trigger a deadly explosion and fire.
Ether, one of the main ingredients in Nazi Meth, is highly flammable. If the ether is exposed to heat it will combust and will spread rapidly. Some officials report that increases in automobile fires likely stem from the accidental ignition of ether in mobile meth labs.
The risk of fire and explosion also extends to lab cleanup. Some of the waste materials are also combustible and officials assigned to lab clean up must take numerous precautions. One ingredient, sodium metal, reacts violently when exposed to water and has been know to destroy plumbing if improperly disposed.
Threats to the Environment
The ratio of waste materials to finished product is approximately 6 to 1. Thus, for every pound of methamphetamine manufactured there are six pounds of toxic waste materials that must be disposed. Meth cookers have been known to leave the waste at the site, dump it in streams and rivers, spread it out over open fields or leave it in garbage bags for the local trash collector. The illegal dumping of waste products is a serious health hazard. There is a potential for these chemicals to reach ground water and to affect the ecosystem. In addition, unsuspecting citizens are often exposed and some are injured when they attempt to dispose of the waste.
Some meth cooks prefer to manufacture outside their own residence. Some have been known to cook in state and federal parks reducing the risk of explosion and for security purposes. Cooking outdoors may reduce risks to the residence and its occupants but jeopardizes the environment.
Other cooks will rent motel or hotel rooms and will manufacture meth over night or over a weekend. Other guests are exposed to toxic fumes and the risks of fire and explosion. Cleaning staff may be left with the toxic waste. Last, future residents of the room will be exposed to fumes and residue that has permeated walls and flooring.
The paranoid reaction resulting from use of the drug also creates health risks. Meth cookers and distributors fear being robbed and being arrested. As a result, approximately 20 percent admit to carrying a weapon. While the greatest risks involve intentionally discharging the weapon, the accidental or drug-related discharge poses a threat to the user and to anyone within his or her immediate vicinity.
Some cookers have also been known to rig booby traps or to keep attack dogs to protect their lab, money or their stash of drugs. Law enforcement official and unsuspecting neighbors or children may be injured it they set off the booby trap or if they are attacked by the dog.