EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this story included incorrect information about cleaning up meth labs. The story has been updated and is now correct.
FORT WAYNE — Gone are the days when making meth on the go was confined to low-end hotel rooms.
The drug’s cooks are now finding their ways into hotels that any family might choose for road trips or weekends at various lake communities in the area.
“It’s not just happening in low-level hotels or strip hotels. It’s starting to happen in middle-class hotels,” said Joe Clark, operations manager for water and special projects at Protechs, a Fort Wayne company that does meth lab decontamination.
At the Comfort Inn in Warsaw, two people were found with finished meth and a lab.
Protechs got the cleanup job, and for Clark, the location was fairly unnerving.
It was a hotel he said would appeal to any family in need of a room for the night.
When cooks make meth in hotels, they leave behind contamination that could affect anyone who stays in that room, especially if the stay is long-term.
The ingredients for meth and their byproducts, including ammonia, hydrochloric acid gas, lithium, sulfuric acid and pseudoephedrine, carry a plethora of possible side effects depending on the length of exposure.
The Indiana State Department of Health’s website lists breathing problems, chest pain, skin irritation, dizziness and a burning sensation to the eyes and skin as possible side effects from meth lab exposure.
Children are especially susceptible and can suffer long-term problems if they live in an environment where meth was made.
Hotels still made up a fairly small portion of the locations in Allen County where police found meth labs in recent years, accounting for about 15 percent of the locations from 2008 to 2013, according to Allen County Health Department records.
Although local health departments are tasked with condemning homes or hotel rooms where meth is made, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management sets all rules that apply to meth lab cleanups.
This year, there have been four reported cases of meth lab finds at motels in Allen, Huntington and DeKalb counties, according to The Journal Gazette.
Unless something goes awry in the production or someone smells the telltale ammonia smell of a meth lab, chances are the cooks will check out the next morning and go on their way while the residue of their product remains on the room’s surfaces or bathroom fixtures.
“Very rarely would they (police) probably catch them,” Protechs’ Clark said. Indiana State Police said there’s no way to know how many people get away with making meth in hotels.
To make sure a hotel room can be used again, a cleaning company will have the surfaces and furniture tested by a third party.
Depending on the results, the room can be opened for business or will need to be decontaminated.
Until the room passes inspection, it cannot be used by anyone.
“We will post that room uninhabitable, meaning it can’t be rented out again until it’s decontaminated and final testing has occurred,” said Dave Fiess, director of vector control and environmental services for Allen County’s health department.
The Comfort Inn room is once again open for business after the initial test results showed the level of contamination was below the state minimum, according to the Kosciusko County Health Department.
Health departments provide hotel managers with state laws about meth lab cleanup and a list of certified companies that do such work.
Several phone calls and messages to the Comfort Inn were not returned, nor were calls to other hotels in the area.
Should the hotel manager decide to use the room without it being cleaned, though, local health departments have no authority to issue fines or citations to the hotel.
Bob Weaver, administrator for the Kosciusko County Health Department, said he does not know of any hotels in his area that have opened a room without permission.
“The liability would just be too great,” he said.
Because of the health hazards that meth labs pose, IDEM has a certified meth lab cleanup program and stresses that citizens do not attempt to clean up math labs. Instead, citizens should call the police if they suspect that a hotel room is a meth lab site.
Clark recalled one decontamination job where the hotel room was stripped of everything, including the heating unit, because of the extensive contamination.
Despite the health concerns posed by such chemical residue, he said the hotel manager wanted to keep the mattress in the room.
Clark did not grant the request.
In some cases, cleanup may be so extensive that IDEM recommends that building owners consider demolition instead of decontamination.
When it comes to decontamination at hotels, the tricky part is not to attract too much attention to what went on in the room.
“The hotel doesn’t want to alarm their clientele,” said Donetta Held, president and owner of Crisis Cleaning, another company in the area that handles meth lab decontamination.
The size of most hotel rooms and the self-contained air-handling systems in them work in favor for decontamination crews. Since each room has its own heating and air-conditioning unit, the chances of the vapors getting into the rest of the building are slim.
“Nine times out of 10 when we’ve tested adjoining units, there hasn’t been contamination that’s carried over,” Held said, adding there would need to be “serious cooking” going on for the contamination to spread throughout the hotel.
Depending on what the initial tests show, the cleanup could be as simple as washing walls or as extensive as gutting the entire room.
Once a decontamination company is finished, a testing company takes samples from the room’s walls, furniture and fixtures to see if the levels meet the IDEM requirements set in 2007.
In Indiana, the standard is 0.5 micrograms of contaminants per 100 square centimeters.
Kentucky and Tennessee only allow 0.1 micrograms per 100 square centimeters, and California allows up to 1.5 micrograms, one of the highest allowances in the nation.
“When they bumped theirs up to 1.5, that kind of surprised me because I was thinking that was high,” said Fiess, of the Allen County Health Department.
Even in cases where homes or hotel rooms were cleaned to IDEM standards, tales occasionally surface across the state where long-term hotel customers reported respiratory and other health problems they never before had.