Until recently, clandestine methamphetamine production was viewed as a victimless crime. Law enforcement and child protective services personnel typically failed to treat as victims the children found living at or visiting illegal methamphetamine laboratory sites. They rarely interviewed these children as potential witnesses, evaluated them for physical or psychological damage, or ensured that they were placed in proper and safe environments.1 Now, as more and more children are found living at home-based labs, law enforcement, medical, and social services professionals are showing growing awareness of the enormous physical, developmental, emotional, and psychosocial damage these children may incur.2
Children who live at or visit these sites or are present during drug production face acute health and safety risks, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and medical neglect. The manufacture of methamphetamine may involve hazards such as fires and explosions. The age-related behaviors of young children (such as frequent hand-to-mouth contact and physical contact with their environment) increase the likelihood that they will inhale, absorb, or ingest toxic chemicals, drugs, or contaminated food. Their physiological characteristics (such as higher metabolic and respiratory rates and a developing central nervous system) leave them particularly vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemical exposures. Exposure to drugs and alcohol before birth places infants at increased risk for neurological abnormalities and respiratory problems, which may be compounded by ongoing environmental exposures.
Personnel involved in laboratory seizures should include or have ready access to qualified professionals who can respond to the immediate and potential health needs of the children present at these sites. Actions should include taking children into protective custody, arranging for toxicologic urinalysis for methamphetamine and other drugs, conducting comprehensive medical and mental health assessments, and ensuring short- and long-term care and followup with a pediatrician.