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Methamphetamine contamination forces some Colorado libraries to close for cleaning

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Since December, at least six public libraries in Colorado have been forced to close their doors because of contamination by methamphetamine. From member station KUNC, Leigh Paterson reports.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: Terzah Becker has worked as a librarian at Boulder's main library branch for almost 20 years.

TERZAH BECKER: When I decide it's time to do some rounds, out we go.

PATERSON: Every hour or so, Becker walks in a big loop, wearing her ID, holding a walkie-talkie.

BECKER: Generally, I'll go back this way first because there's public seating back here.

PATERSON: Walking past large windows overlooking the foothills and patrons picking over books in the stacks, Becker is keeping an eye out for trouble.

BECKER: I like to know who's here and what they're doing. So right now, we've got some folks in the study room.

PATERSON: Library staff are doing more of these rounds since traces of meth were found a few months ago. Becker strongly believes this public space is for everybody. But right now, safety is also a priority.

BECKER: The message is you are safe, and we're taking care of this building, and we're taking care of you.

PATERSON: After testing in December showed elevated levels of meth in seating areas and bathrooms, including the children's bathrooms, the entire library closed down for three weeks. After hiring specialists to clean the building top to bottom and remediate the meth residue, it reopened in January. But restrooms remain closed. Becker says that when she heard people were smoking meth in the building, she wasn't completely surprised. They've been finding needles outside of the library for years.

BECKER: Yes, it was surprising and it was disheartening. But in the end, it seemed inevitable.

PATERSON: Cleanup is expected to cost around $200,000. Upholstered furniture and computers are now gone. Contractors are replacing contaminated vents and fans in the restrooms. The American Library Association says it's not seeing similar meth-related shutdowns in other states.

MIKE VAN DYKE: I would think that the risk of health effects in these public spaces is very, very low.

PATERSON: Industrial hygienist Mike Van Dyke says any real threat to visitors is unclear. But Colorado law requires cleanup when meth is present in certain concentrations. Van Dyke, who teaches at the Colorado School of Public Health, explains that state standards were originally written with residential exposure in mind.

VAN DYKE: And typically, we think about that mostly in terms of a child - you know, crawling across contaminated carpets, crawling across contaminated furniture.

PATERSON: In a public bathroom, he says, it's a completely different scenario. People are generally just passing through.

VAN DYKE: We don't have the regulations to deal with this sort of situation. And people get concerned when they find out that their bathroom is contaminated with methamphetamine.

PATERSON: The state's health department says it may recommend new cleanup standards for public spaces.

Gordon Holman is Boulder's facilities maintenance manager. He opens one of the library bathrooms with a key and points into the gaping holes workers have made above each stall.

GORDON HOLMAN: You'll see where they removed drywall, and then you can see the duct work that will also be removed.

PATERSON: Back in late November and into December, strange smells were reported in the bathrooms.

HOLMAN: We were called in to see if we could take care of the odor. And then when my custodial group started getting sick, then it's time to start figuring out why.

PATERSON: A custodian and two security guards became dizzy after going into those restrooms. Soon after, testing showed that people had been smoking meth in there. The residue from it is extremely sticky, hard to clean and can be transferred all over by fingers and clothes.

HOLMAN: I don't think when I took this position I would ever be dealing with this.

PATERSON: Boulder is trying to prevent this from happening again. The library has brought on an additional security guard. Restroom access will be limited once the bathrooms reopen.

BECKER: This is not just a Boulder library problem. This is a Boulder library problem because libraries are a microcosm of an entire society.

PATERSON: Terzah Becker has been seeing social problems in the library for years. These days, she says staff are dealing with bigger incidents more often. They recently had an informational meeting with local police on how to identify various drugs. Becker says this is not what she signed up for when she went to library school.

BECKER: I'm angry and frustrated, and I want my job just to be normal. I want to be able to just order books and make people library cards and teach seniors how to download books. I don't want to be dealing with walking around and having to police people.

PATERSON: And yet Becker has mixed feelings, like empathy for the people who are bringing drugs into the library. Dealing with these issues, she says, has made her a better, more compassionate person.

For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leigh Paterson