Meth Myths, Meth Realities

What we know--and what we don't--about methamphetamine's history, chemistry, and impact on users

But the same things that make meth a bargain for the producer/user make it expensive to the rest of society. Researchers have linked exposure to meth labs to a host of illnesses in first responders (police, fire, and ambulance personnel). According to Paul Stevens of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, each year an average of 25 first responders at the scenes of Minnesota meth labs suffer injuries that require treatment. But that may be the tip of the iceberg. Short-term respiratory problems are the most common and easily identified health problems arising from exposure. But a host of longer-range maladies have also been implicated, including chemical bronchitis, emphysema, thyroid cancer, kidney cancer, lymphomas, and multiple myeloma.

There is no definitive evidence regarding specific long-term illnesses, but a number of studies have associated general ill health with meth lab exposure. In one, first responders who had been to meth labs were found to be seven times more likely to miss work than their peers.

Deb Durkin, an environmental health specialist with the Minnesota Department of Health, puts it this way: "We need more research, and there isn't enough science quantifying any of this. But we've got first responders all over the Midwest who are now sitting home collecting pensions. We've even been hearing from jailers who are getting sick just from being in small booking rooms with the cooks, because their clothes are saturated with these chemicals."

And then there are the kids. According to a DEA report, children are present in about 30 percent of the meth labs. In Minnesota, that figure is closer to 50 percent. Because their immune systems are immature, children are more vulnerable to the toxic chemicals associated with meth production. And because they crawl on the floor and stick their hands in their mouths, they are more likely to come into contact with dangerous chemicals in the first place.

Owing to such concerns, the cleanup of meth lab sites has become big business. At Bay West, Inc., an 80-plus person environmental services firm in St. Paul, meth labs now constitute about 10 percent of the company's business. In October, the company won the federal contract to remove hazardous chemicals from all meth labs discovered in Minnesota. Since then, according to Bay West's Dan Hannan, they have averaged about a lab per day, dispatching teams of technicians in moon suits with full-face respirators to collect the materials. The contract does not cover the cost of decontaminating the lab sites, which can be extremely expensive. "We've seen cases where the cost of cleaning exceeds the value of the home," Hannan says.

People take meth in every conceivable manner. It can be injected, smoked, snorted, ingested orally or, more exotically, diluted in water and squirted in the anus. That's called a "booty bump," and is said to intensify sexual pleasure. Injection and smoking produce the fastest, most intense sensations. Within 10 seconds, the user experiences an intense rush. Immediately, the body begins pumping out adrenaline, a natural stimulant that triggers the fight-or-flight response. At the same time, the brain is flooded by a massive release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being. The rush doesn't last long, usually between five and 30 minutes. But it is highly pleasurable. Users describe it as something like a rolling orgasm.

Meth also heightens the user's sex drive. Not surprisingly, it has been implicated in unusually high rates of sexually transmitted diseases. A study in the Seattle area found that 47 percent of gay and bisexual men who injected meth were HIV-positive, by far the highest infection rate of any group examined. Interestingly, the study concluded, the primary means of transmission was not needle sharing but sexual contact. In other words, meth promoted promiscuity and rougher encounters, which increased the likelihood of infection.

In a larger study of gay and bisexual men in California, researchers found that meth users were about twice as likely to be HIV positive as nonusers. In addition, a quarter of all gay and bi men with syphilis reported recent meth use; and among non-HIV positive gay and bi meth users, rates of rectal gonorrhea were three times higher than among nonusers. Worse yet, some scientists now believe that methamphetamine may actually accelerate the progression of the HIV virus on a cellular level. In a study of cats with feline immunodeficiency virus, researchers at Ohio State found that the virus replicated as much as 15 times faster when exposed to methamphetamine.

Meth's stimulant effects linger much longer than the euphoria. During the high that follows the rush, users experience a sensation of heightened mental clarity and, often, aggression. Blood pressure and pulse rate increase. Sometimes there are heart palpitations. And the appetite disappears. That's one reason why users tend to lose a lot of weight. And, researchers say, it is a big factor in the drug's rising popularity among teenage girls and women. In the 1950s and '60s, amphetamine tablets were frequently prescribed as a diet aid. Today, treatment of obesity is one of the few medically sanctioned uses of pharmaceutical-grade meth.

Heavy meth users go on binges that sometimes last up to two weeks. More typically, binges are between one and three days. During this period, users often engage in compulsive or repetitive acts, such as housecleaning or disassembling appliances. Meth also produces an array of strange physical sensations. One of the most common is called formication--the delusion of insects crawling under the skin. The cause of formication is not entirely understood. Some research has suggested that toxic adulterants in meth (perhaps from the solvents used in the manufacturing process) accumulate in the skin cells, which then begin dying. In response, sufferers begin to pick or scratch until they form open sores. The phenomenon is referred to as "crank bugs" or "meth mites."

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