Secondhand METH smoke (Oregon)
Local children test positive for the drug as users fill the air with their toxins
By SARAH LEMON
With just a blow torch and his bare hands, Robert Davis can crank out 40 methamphetamine pipes in an hour.
On probation for burglary, forgery, theft and possessing meth, Davis, 26, was released just a couple of days ago from the county’s Community Justice work center. He smoked meth the same day, he said.
Since his release, Davis found his way to an acquaintance’s Orange Street garage, where he’s been camping out. Davis’ meth pipes found their way into the man’s house and upstairs into his sock drawer, where narcotics detectives discovered them Thursday.
"And that’s the same pipe we see with all the meth users," said Medford police Detective Gary Hatten.
If he doesn’t give them away, Davis sells the pipes for a dollar apiece. Demand must be high, police say, because the majority of meth on the street these days is the crystallized form known as "rock" or "ice." More potent than the powdered variety, crystal meth is primarily smoked.
But crystal meth isn’t just giving users a quicker, longer-lasting high. Health and child-welfare workers say the smoke is invading the bodies of addicts’ children, who are testing positive for meth after they’re taken out of their homes. As local officials implement a new protocol advocating urinalysis of children removed from environments of meth use and sales, the drug is only expected to show up more often in child victims.
"The highest levels (of meth) are in children who are around the chronic users," said Curtis Oddo, pediatrician at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Medford.
"My assumption is the secondhand smoke is how they get exposed," Oddo said.
Testing and decontaminating children found in drug houses is the focus of this week’s Drug-Endangered Children Conference. Child-welfare workers Tuesday will join police, educators, medical professionals, drug treatment specialists and others at Jackson County’s first such conference, the third in Oregon.
Children in meth labs were the primary concern when the Oregon Alliance for Drug Endangered Children formed in 2004. The group urged counties to develop and implement their own comprehensive responses.
Meth labs have since declined dramatically in Oregon, a trend officials attribute to tougher state laws that put cold pills containing pseudoephedrine — used to make meth — in secure locations at retail sites. But that doesn’t mean kids are no longer at risk.
"There’s still a lot of meth in the valley," said Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston, who helped spearhead the local Drug Endangered Children protocol.
Last year, child-welfare workers for the local office of the Department of Human Services removed 308 children from homes where meth was being used. Meth was a factor in about 55 percent of the agency’s total cases.
Since September, urinalyses of five children taken into protective custody came back positive for drugs, said Karla Carlson, local intake supervisor for DHS. Four had levels of meth while one was unconfirmed but suspected as cocaine, Carlson said.
"I think we know all these parents at some point were smoking the drug," Carlson said.
The most recent case was a several-weeks-old baby who seemed to show symptoms of meth withdrawal, she added.
"The children are very irritable," Oddo said. "They may be jittery; they cry more; they don’t feed well."
The only way a child so young could have detectable levels of meth is through breast milk from a mother who’s using or by inhaling secondhand meth smoke, Oddo said. As meth is metabolized fairly rapidly, children testing positive for the drug likely were exposed within the previous 12 hours, the doctor added.
While testing and decontaminating children are major components of the Drug Endangered Children response, the new protocol also highlights other hazardous home environments, making police and child-welfare workers more aware of overall risks, Huddleston said.
"We’re looking for a global assessment," he said.
More practical matters, such as where everyone sleeps inside a suspected drug house, are part of the training. It’s a question DHS worker Stacie Piels asked Thursday at the Orange Street house. After getting a call that drug use was threatening several children there, Piels and Medford police officers went to investigate, rousing about a dozen relatives, friends and acquaintances of the primary renter, a man named Donald (his last name has been withheld to protect the identities of his children).
"There’s just a ton of people crashing," Piels said.
Most of those who staggered from the home’s four bedrooms at about 9:30 a.m. didn’t live there. Some said they were homeless. Donald said he didn’t even know he had so many house guests.
"It’s like every frickin’ door that was opened there was another family living behind," Piels said.
One woman stayed the night with her 6-year-old son after her car wouldn’t start. But crashing on the floor covered with a comforter is no kind of sleeping arrangement for the woman’s child, Piels said, pointing out a space heater perilously close to a mattress.
"If you lived here, I would remove your child," Piels told the woman.
"There’s nothing in this house that you need to come back here for."
Pop cans and candy wrappers littering the living room, the house is typical of those DHS workers see whether or not drug use is suspected in a child-welfare case, Piels said.
A pile of couch cushions and chairs teetered in a corner. Dirty pots and pans littered the stove and green laminate counters. A chainsaw had taken up residence in the shower. Donald, 59, complained that someone stole $1,400 out of the house last week.
"There’s stuff going on in here that you have no idea about, I’m sure," Hatten told him.
When detectives found the sock drawer stash of pipes, Donald claimed he confiscated them from visitors and then washed them out.
"I have never seen a meth pipe this clean," Hatten said.
It soon became apparent that the pipes were brand new, likely Davis’ handiwork. Detectives also located one clouded with meth residue inside a plastic container along with Donald’s blood pressure medication. It was the only evidence of meth in the house.
"I don’t know if there’s ever a lot (of meth) here, but there’s definitely a lot of using going on here," Hatten said.
Several people in the house were ordered to take urine tests at OnTrack Inc., a local drug treatment center. Having admitted to using the day before, Davis shuffled off to the parole and probation office for his own test. He was arrested that afternoon for violating probation.
"A lot’s going to depend on the UAs (urine analyses)," Piels said.
The social worker couldn’t complete her investigation before speaking to Donald’s wife, who wasn’t at home. At this point, the family’s two elementary-school-aged kids will stay with their parents, Piels said, but their father was facing a possible meth-possession charge.
"If you don’t know who’s sleeping in the bedroom downstairs, how do you know that your child is safe?" Piels asked.
"No 10-year-old should have to live like that."
Social workers decontaminate kids
Under a new Jackson County protocol, drug-endangered children undergo a decontamination process.
Decontamination is automatic when children are removed from methamphetamine labs. The process is at child-welfare workers’ discretion when kids are removed from a house where drug use is suspected.
To prevent transfer of toxic chemicals, decontamination is done before children are taken away from their home. Child-welfare workers use the following steps:
Exposed skin is washed using packaged, pre-moistened wipes.
If contamination is obvious, workers may change children’s clothes before transporting them.
Children are taken to the local Department of Human Services office or the Children’s Advocacy Center, showered and given clean clothing.
The transport vehicle should have disposable covers for infant and child safety seats.
No items from the home are taken with the children.
For more information, visit www.oregondec.org or www.nationaldec.org
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.