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Local News

Drug Contaminations in Colorado Libraries Reflect Worsening Addiction Problems

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by William Oster, Colorado Newsline

At first, just one library closed its doors after test results confirmed traces of methamphetamine contamination in bathrooms. Within weeks, one library became two, two became three and as of Feb. 13, four libraries in Colorado have had to limit their operations due to traces of meth being found in their buildings.

Of the four libraries — Boulder Public Library, Englewood Public Library, Bemis Public Library in Littleton and Arvada Library — only the Boulder location has reopened to the public, with restrooms remaining closed. Pikes Peak Library District, which operates 16 facilities in Colorado Springs and El Paso County, is currently conducting tests inside all public restrooms and remains open as samples are collected.

News of these closures has not just affected the patrons who frequent library systems, either to conduct work, read or attend community-led events. The closures have also caused those within the library systems to question whether the resources they have are adequate, and it reflects a greater drug addiction problem facing the country as a whole.

“This is really a problem that is not unique to libraries,” said Kim McGrigg, director of communications for the Jefferson County Public Library. “For some reason, the focus currently is on the library systems … we’re trying to make informed decisions using the guidance of our experts.”

So far, Colorado is the only state to report any positive tests of meth contamination in their library facilities this year.

The state does not require regular tests in public buildings for drug contamination, meaning that library directors have been left largely on their own to decide whether or not they should test their facilities. 

Easy to clean off

In light of the recent contaminations, Boulder library director David Farnan has developed a protocol that, should any smoke or fumes be detected in the bathrooms, no one is allowed to enter them for at least an hour. In addition, staff is prepared to deal with people who may be high on drugs, and Farnan has emphasized that there’s not one single method that works effectively for each situation.

“There’s not a single recipe for determining when someone is high or not,” he said. “You don’t just do it by eye contact or what’s observational.”

We want the answers, too, so that we can make informed decisions. Libraries are welcoming to all people but certainly not all behaviors.

– Kim McGrigg, of Jefferson County Public Library

As for whether there was any serious cause for concern for patrons, experts have found the risk was relatively low.

Mike Van Dyke, an industrial hygienist and associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Colorado School of Public Health, said in an interview published by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus that, “exposure really is key.”

“The good thing is that the way bathrooms are constructed is, you have an exhaust ventilation system that goes directly outside,” he said. “You’re not distributing this methamphetamine aerosol throughout the facility, and the surfaces that are most highly contaminated are those surfaces that you’re not going to touch. So from my perspective, this is a really, really low potential for any sort of health effects.”

Van Dyke and his colleagues at the Colorado School of Public Health have also done studies looking into how long methamphetamine contamination lasts on surfaces, finding that while it can last a long time, it’s very water soluble and therefore easy to clean off with normal cleaning chemicals.

“Now, when you talk about drywall, painted surfaces, carpets, drapes and upholstery, that’s a different story,” he said. “But for surfaces you would see in a bathroom, it’s relatively easily decontaminated.”

The number of drug overdose deaths due to methamphetamine has continued to rise over the past several years. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has recorded 3,262 methamphetamine overdose deaths since it began collecting data in 2000. In 2018, 349 methamphetamine overdose deaths were reported, making up 10.7% of reported overdose deaths that year. In 2022, 749 deaths were reported and made up 23% of reported overdose deaths.

With this in mind, the idea of librarians attempting to continue business as usual has proved challenging. They acknowledge the inevitability of some drug use in their facilities while trying to keep libraries safe for community activity. For now, Englewood, Bemis and Aravada public libraries remain closed as they continue to undergo cleaning.

“We’re working really hard to ensure the library is a safe and welcoming place,” said McGrigg. “We want the answers, too, so that we can make informed decisions. Libraries are welcoming to all people but certainly not all behaviors.”

As for Boulder library, which reopened on Jan. 11, operations are relatively back to normal, but the severity of the situation still lingers.

“Drug addiction has been a well-documented issue in Boulder County, and has been for the past 20 years,” said Farnan. “When are we going to stop pretending it’s just a story and come up with some ideas for how to address it?”

This story was written by William Oster, a reporting intern at Colorado Newsline, where this story first appeared.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.