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No bathrooms, computers or couches: how Boulder’s main library is dealing with meth contamination

The facilities maintenance manager for the City of Boulder stands in a doorway and points upward to the spot where workers will need remove meth-contaminated ductwork from one of the city's main library bathrooms.
Leigh Paterson
Gordon Holman, the facilities maintenance manager for the City of Boulder, points to the spot where workers will need remove meth-contaminated ductwork from one of the city's main library bathrooms.

Boulder’s main library branch is in the midst of a massive remediation effort after elevated levels of methamphetamine were found in seating areas and bathrooms.

Upholstered furniture has been ripped out, as have computers. Much of the library has been cleaned top to bottom, including carpets, walls and HVAC systems. Work in the restrooms is still underway, including in the family bathrooms.

“Careful not to touch anything because we haven't done any of the cleaning mitigation yet,” Gordon Holman, the city’s facilities maintenance manager, said as he opened one of the locked bathrooms with a key.

These restrooms were remodeled just a few years ago. Bright geometric murals cover the walls. Plastic sheets are now taped to touchless toilets and sinks. Contractors are replacing the ductwork and fans in all of the restrooms after testing of the exhaust fans showed meth levels significantly higher than the state’s threshold for remediation.

A white bathroom door with a paper sign on it that shows a symbol of a toilet with a red cross through it.
Leigh Paterson
The city of Boulder hopes to reopen the public restrooms at its main library branch but, for now, all bathrooms are closed for remediation.

The city first became aware of the issue in November, when strange smells were reported in the library bathrooms.

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

A few employees became dizzy after going into those restrooms. Soon after, testing showed the odor was coming from meth that had been smoked. The residueis extremely sticky, hard to clean and can be easily transferred by fingers and clothes. Holman says he has been getting calls from facility managers all over the Denver metro area who want to know what happened in Boulder and how they’re fixing it.

"I don't think when I took this position I would ever be dealing with this,” Holman said.

‘The risk of health effects in these public spaces is very, very low’

State regulations require remediation when meth contamination is present in certain concentrations, but the risk of any immediate danger to library visitors is less clear.

“I would think that the risk of health effects in these public spaces is very, very low,” Mike Van Dyke, an industrial hygienist and professor at the Colorado School of Public Health, said.

The state’s current regulations were written with residential exposure to meth in mind, he said. Plus, there's a certain demographic particularly vulnerable to exposure.

“Typically, we think about that mostly in terms of a child, you know, crawling across contaminated carpets, crawling across contaminated furniture,” Van Dyke said.

In a public bathroom, the level of exposure tends to be lower than in a private residence since people are generally just passing through.

“We don't have the regulations to deal with this sort of situation,” Van Dyke said. “And people get concerned when they find out that their bathroom is contaminated with methamphetamine.”

Meth use is a persistent problem in Colorado. In 2021, nearly 750 people died of methamphetamine overdoses statewide. Just months before the Boulder library contamination scare, the city began efforts to provide recovery services for people addicted to methamphetamine. At present, the city is in the process of opening an inpatient treatment facility.

“We have very, very busy public restrooms, and so kind of bigger things that are happening in our society come into the library because of that,” Jane Sykes Wilson, the chair of the Boulder Library Commission, said.

‘You've got to make sure that you don't end up in this place ever again’

A golden-lit empty space with wide windows looking out on a sunny day and two lamps hanging down from the ceiling.
Leigh Paterson
Furniture once occupied this space in Boulder's main library branch. All upholstered furniture has been removed from Boulder’s main library branch after trace amounts of methamphetamine were found on the main floor seating areas.

For now, the bathrooms are closed for cleaning while the library and city figure out how to reopen safely.

Holman is helping to install key card access for some of the restrooms.

“We'll let the library decide,” Holman said. “But we want to put enough controls on everything that they can decide how much is open and when.

Backpacks may be prohibited in the bathrooms. The library is bringing on an additional security guard and is considering hiring security personnel with specialized training in substance abuse. Once remediation is complete, more testing will be done to make sure bathrooms are safe before they reopen. So far, remediation and clean-up efforts have cost the city over $170,000.

“In a municipality, you've got a limited amount of funds,” Holman said. “You can't just print money. So you've got to make sure that you don't end up in this place ever again.”

Libraries are figuring this out as they go. Both the High Plains Library District in Weld County and the Poudre River Public Library District in Fort Collins have no plans to test proactively and no known incidents of meth use at the time of publication.

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.
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