ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – For the second time in a month, a Colorado library has closed its doors to clean up methamphetamine contamination.
Officials in the Denver suburb of Englewood shut down the city library last week within a couple of hours of getting test results Wednesday showing that the contamination in the facility's restrooms exceeded state thresholds, city spokesman Chris Harguth said.
Other spaces such as countertops also tested positive for lower levels of the drug and will require specialized cleaning, he said. The larger-scale remediation work will include removing tainted surfaces, walls, ductwork and exhaust fan equipment.
The city of about 33,000 just south of Denver decided to test for the drug after officials in the nearby college town of Boulder closed its main library after finding meth contamination, Harguth said.
It is the latest example of the balancing act urban libraries have to navigate between making their facilities be welcoming to all while keeping them clean and safe. When a rash of overdoses in libraries were reported in the mid 2010s as the opioid crisis grew across the United States, some libraries were equipped with the antidote Naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan.
So far it seems library closures triggered by methamphetamine contamination are limited to Colorado, according to spokesman Raymond Garcia of the American Library Association, which is unaware of any happening elsewhere across the country in recent years. The group declined to comment on whether drug use has been increasing in libraries, citing a lack of up-to-date data.
Health officials say meth residue can be an irritant, causing symptoms like an itchy throat, a runny nose and bloodshot eyes. But secondary exposure isn’t believed to cause long-term, chronic health concerns, Harguth said.
Drug use is not common in the Englewood library, but reports of it have increased in recent months as colder weather led more people to seek shelter there, with only a small number of them using, library director Christina Underhill said. More broadly, the library has attracted more homeless people since fully reopening after closing at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We’re very accommodating,” Underhill said. But “there are some individuals who abuse this space and unfortunately put us in this position.”
Brenda Folsom, who was picking up her grandchildren from school near Englewood's library on Thursday, said she has seen an increase in drug use in the area over the last two years, particularly at her local park. She is concerned her 3- and 8-year-old grandsons, who go to the library with their father, and other curious children might pick up needles and other drug paraphernalia in its bathrooms.
“I think if they would clean their restrooms a little more or paid attention to the restrooms and stuff or the people going in there, they wouldn’t have this problem,” Folsom said. In her view, the library should have better security and more frequent checks of the facilities.
Boulder officials suggested that their city's library closure last month was the result of strict state rules for cleaning up meth once testing reveals it. They also pointed out that standards for how much meth contamination is acceptable were developed with an eye toward homes, where frequent exposure is more likely than in public buildings.
Colorado's rules are “some of the most conservative in the nation, using an abundance of caution to protect infants and children from exposure,” the city said in a Dec. 28 statement.
The Boulder library has since reopened, but its bathrooms remain closed as crews do decontamination work including replacing fans and vents, spokesperson Annie Elliott said. Once that is done, the bathrooms will remain locked and anyone needing to use them will have to ask a staff member or security guard for access.
The Englewood library has made some changes to help homeless people who go there. An outreach group comes each Monday to offer services like help getting identification, food vouchers and housing, according to Underhill.
However after some library users said they did not feel safe, the city hired security guards last year, she said. It also established a code of conduct with the aim of helping librarians be able to enforce rules.
Englewood also recently increased funding to add more staff in hopes of deterring drug use, according to the library's website.
“The use of the library has changed,” Underhill said. "More people are coming to use it as a shelter area.”
Slevin reported from Denver.