BOULDER — Libraries in three Denver suburbs, and the city of Boulder, have undergone extended closures in the last six weeks after meth users lit up in public bathrooms, leaving in their wake a toxic drug residue that’s costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to clean up.
“I was annoyed,” said Tamara Currie, who was checking out books at the main branch of the Boulder Public Library last week. “I had friends visiting over the holidays and I wanted to show them the library.”
Boulder’s main branch reopened in January after a three-week shutdown necessitated by test results that revealed methamphetamine residue in bathroom exhaust vents above state health limits. The six impacted bathrooms remain sealed off in the building while remediation continues.
“I do not use the bathrooms in there — I make a point of it. It’s scary,” Currie said.
Following the closure in Boulder, libraries in Englewood, Littleton and Arvada also locked their doors due to methamphetamine contamination found in restrooms. The three suburban libraries have yet to re-open.
Tammy Brooke, a seven-year Boulder resident, said she was “disappointed” that use of the library was denied to everyone because a handful of people chose to get high in the building. But she said the closure is a symptom of the larger drug addiction scourge plaguing Colorado and the nation.
“There’s a problem and it needs to be addressed,” Brooke said, heading into the main branch on Arapahoe Avenue to check out books for her kids.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tallied 749 overdose deaths due to methamphetamine use in 2021, up from 525 the year prior. There were 349 meth overdose deaths in Colorado in 2019.
The rise in meth-related deaths in the state tracks with overall drug use — and escalating overdose deaths — across several classes of illicit substances. At least 1,881 Coloradans died of drugs in 2021, the most recent year state health data is available, as fentanyl and methamphetamine continued pushing the state’s per-capita overdose rate to the highest level ever recorded.
Boulder library officials received complaints about smoking in the bathrooms in late November and its security team was able to catch some of the offenders in the act, Library Director David Farnan told The Denver Post. Testing in December revealed meth use.
“The meth contamination was primarily in the air ducts,” Farnan said. “By state law, we were required to do remediation.”
In Colorado, the contamination threshold for residential cleanup is 0.5 micrograms of meth per 100 square centimeters. Tests in the Boulder library’s main branch found a level of 0.75 micrograms/100 cm² of meth on an exhaust vent cover inside a large family restroom and 1.2 micrograms/100 cm² on an exhaust vent cover in a small family restroom.
Several exhaust fans and vents in library restrooms also had methamphetamine levels as high as 75 micrograms/100cm², according to reporting from the Daily Camera.
Not only will the bathrooms be closed through mid-February as the ductwork is fully replaced, but the library had to rip out and throw away benches and chairs from a popular seating area near the main bathrooms because trace amounts of the drug were found there.
A city official said remediation and testing have cost Boulder $105,000 so far, with an additional $68,000 in cleaning costs expected, as well as $15,000 put toward future bathroom access control. That will likely take the form of a key that must be signed out or the stationing of a guard at the bathroom entrance.
While the library had to take action, Farnan said, the problem of meth contamination is hardly confined to libraries.
“The problem is not isolated to Boulder or to libraries — it’s a national problem,” he said. “It’s a story about drug addiction and housing instability — it’s not about libraries.”
But libraries are where the problem is manifesting in a way that directly impacts others — students who rely on libraries to do their school work, the unemployed searching on computers for a job or parents taking their children to story hour.
Englewood Public Library tested for meth in early January after it learned about Boulder’s results. The city south of Denver found meth residue exceeding the state threshold in two library restrooms and two bathrooms on the second floor of its municipal headquarters. The city closed the library and parts of its civic center building as a result.
It hopes to re-open by the end of February but there are no guarantees. The city estimates it will cost $47,000 to clean up the mess.
“This is clearly a frustration for both residents and staff,” said Chris Harguth, communications director for Englewood. “However, monitoring illicit behavior in private spaces can be very challenging.”
Even though a police officer is present 20 hours a week during peak times at the Bemis Public Library in Littleton and the library has a new 33-camera security system that monitors all public spaces, “obviously 100% privacy in a restroom is impossible,” city spokeswoman Kelli Narde said.
Bemis Public Library closed Jan. 18 after readings for meth came back above the state limit in the women’s and men’s bathroom exhaust fan, as well as the in the family bathroom. Narde said there is no date for the library to reopen and no estimate of what it will cost Littleton to get it all cleaned up.
“Bemis Public Library, like others across the country, is a welcoming place for everyone, as long as they follow the code of conduct, which prohibits drug use and smoking,” she said.
Denver Public Library has not tested for meth at any of its locations, though the city is in the midst of implementing a cleaning protocol for its facilities. The city currently regularly cleans “restroom surfaces and ventilation equipment to mitigate the spread of diseases and any exposure to unknown substances,” Denver library spokeswoman Olivia Gallegos told The Post.
Gallegos said the “public health risk related to short-term or incidental exposure to methamphetamine in public areas is very low.”
According to Boulder County health officials, symptoms of meth exposure may include watery, red, and burning eyes, irritation of the mucus membranes in the nose and throat, skin redness and rash, chest pain and difficulty breathing, and abdominal pain and diarrhea.
But Colorado School of Public Health professor Mike Van Dyke, who spent a decade studying meth exposure, said the state’s threshold for cleanup applies to residential settings — not to public spaces where exposure would be fleeting at best.
“The remediation limit was based on a toddler living in that space 24 hours a day,” he said. “The residential limit is protective. When you’re in a public bathroom, you’re in the bathroom for a few minutes.”
And because methamphetamine is water soluble, washing one’s hands largely resolves any surface contact with the drug.
“I would call this a very low health risk,” Van Dyke said of the presence of methamphetamine in library bathrooms.
Given the extent of Colorado’s addiction problem and the widespread availability and low price of meth, he said, more libraries will undoubtedly find contamination in the coming weeks — if they look for it.
But cities and library districts might want to think twice, given the expense and inconvenience to remediate what he says is a small risk to public health.
“I think it’s not a good decision to take that sample,” Van Dyke said.
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