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Meth in Libraries: Costly closures unnecessary to protect public health

A disconnect between health guidance and a decade-old state law has left libraries in a “tough situation.”
Boulder main library
Posted at 9:45 PM, Mar 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-01 00:38:36-04

DENVER — Half a dozen Colorado libraries temporarily closed in recent months over fear that methamphetamine residue in their public bathrooms could make people sick.

The libraries spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to test for and cleanup meth contamination.

But numerous public health experts say the health risks are extremely low. In fact, Denver7 obtained internal emails from several of the libraries that closed, showing officials knew about the low risks and decided to close anyway.

“You’re not going to have any effects”

Boulder was the first to close its main library on December 20, 2022.

David Farnan, head of the Boulder Public Library system, said he decided to test the main library for meth residue after receiving more than a dozen complaints in a three-week span of drugs smoked in the restrooms.

“I was disturbed by the fact that people had chosen to do, smoke drugs in the bathroom,” Farnan said.

Over the month of January, Englewood, Littleton and Arvada followed Boulder’s lead. Then in February, libraries in Colorado Springs and Pueblo also shut their doors.

Each time a library closed, a domino effect followed. But some public health experts say there's no need for concern.

Ann Cecchine-Williams, a top manager at Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE), told Denver7 that her agency takes the concerns seriously, but there isn't any danger.

“The risk is much, much lower, clearly, when it's a secondary exposure,” Cecchine-Williams said. “You're not going to have any symptoms. You're not going to have any effects from that. You're not metabolizing it, you're not smoking it.”

Even the libraries that closed knew about the low risks, according to internal emails and their own press releases.

Littleton officials emailed in the days following their library closure to say there was "no immediate danger" and "the health risks to employees and the public are considered low."

The Boulder Public Library acknowledged in a press release that there’s “no indication” of “significant health risks.”

The law is “not appropriate for public spaces”

So why close? The Boulder Public Library director said he was just following the law.

“We think we're obligated to follow state guidelines. We tested. Once you have tested, then the remediation is not something that's negotiable,” said Farnan.

Almost 20 years ago, Colorado set standards for testing and cleaning homes where meth was cooked or smoked.

Colorado has one of the lowest thresholds for meth contamination in the country. It was intended to protect the most vulnerable: a child crawling through a home.

Mike Van Dyke, a Colorado School of Public Health professor, helped the state set its threshold. He said that threshold isn’t being applied properly.

“Residential exposure is very, very different than you’re going to get in a public space, especially in a space like a bathroom,” Van Dyke said. “From a scientific and a risk perspective, that threshold is not appropriate for public spaces.”

As a result, Van Dyke said, “These public spaces get put in a very tough situation in that they only have an inappropriate regulation to apply.”

“I think it's probably easy later to look back on it and say like, "Boy, wasn't the Boulder Library director naive,"” said Farnan, who consulted with Boulder’s city manager and county health department before deciding to close. “I feel like I just did what I had to do, given the information that I was given.”

Just days after closing, Farnan got word from Boulder’s public health department that the risk to the public was low and closure of the full library was unnecessary. But he decided to stay closed.

Staying open

Libraries in Denver and Larimer counties are among those staying open without testing for meth residue.

Erika Martinez, the community engagement director for the Denver Public Library system, said it's safe to go to your local library.

“We will continue to lean on science and data to inform our decision. And we're just really happy that we're in a place where we can continue to keep our buildings open,” she said.

Martinez said libraries provide more than just books. Coloradans of all ages rely on them for a wide range of services, from book clubs and story time to applying for jobs and studying for the GED.

“For us, it is really important, one, to ensure that our buildings are safe for people, but that we continue to offer those critical services that people look to us for,” said Martinez.

Boulder reopened its main library in January, but the bathrooms remain closed for a cleanup process that will cost more than $150,000.

Testing and clean up at other libraries has also cost tens of thousands of dollars.

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