Librarians will tell you the role of public libraries hasn’t changed — they’ve always been a community space open to all, with a mission to educate and serve.
What changes is the world outside, and whatever is going on in society, will go on in the library. The rise in homelessness, untreated mental illness and drug use have forced libraries to adapt, from extensive staff training in how to de-escalate outbursts to hiring social workers and security guards.
This winter, though, libraries across suburban Denver were hit with a new challenge. One by one, they tested for methamphetamine residue in their bathrooms and air vents, fearful that staff and the public were in danger from the toxic contamination left behind by patrons smoking drugs in the bathrooms.
In an extraordinary domino effect, four libraries, some of the last public spaces welcome to everyone, closed.
Some libraries hoped the public would see the closures as a wake-up call, opening eyes to what they deal with every day, according to emails of library directors obtained by The Sun through public records laws. Other libraries emailed to find out whether the first libraries to close had overreacted or if they should test, too. All were concerned upon hearing the test results about the health of their employees.
Boulder Public Library tested in December, after the library director worried about the health of his two-person cleaning team repeatedly sent into the bathroom after reports of putrid smoke. Englewood Public Library, also plagued by meth clouds, discovered in mid-January that its bathrooms were contaminated. Littleton, “in the interest of being proactive,” was next, also finding levels of meth residue exceeding the state health department’s legal limit. Arvada followed last week.
Pikes Peak Public Library District said Jan. 19 it would remain open as samples are taken from all 15 locations in Colorado Springs as a “proactive action” though there was no known meth exposure. It later scaled back, deciding to test only the bathrooms at three of the most popular branches.
The meth closures in Colorado made national news, from People magazine to The New York Times. Public reaction vacillated between accusing the libraries of causing hysteria to wondering how far society has sunk.
Of the four libraries that closed, only Boulder has reopened, though the bathrooms are sealed off by a temporary wall and plastic until they are cleaned by a professional meth lab remediation company. The Boulder library was closed for three weeks. Englewood has been shut down for nearly a month, and Littleton for two and a half weeks. Arvada closed more than a week ago.
Boulder library director David Farnan doesn’t regret closing the doors, even though he said he learned from local and state health officials within a few days of the closure that no one’s health was ever at risk. After 14 incidences of drug use in about three weeks, he’d already had a policy in place to shut down the bathrooms and not let anyone — even the cleaning crew — enter if there were fumes in the air.
But just because no one’s health was at risk, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable, he said.
“We have to do everything we can to prevent this from ever happening again,” Farnan said. “We can’t have a public library and have meth use going on in the bathroom. That’s just a no-brainer.”
So the library will again find a way to adapt. The plan is to keep the restrooms closed to the public, except for children accompanied by their parents and people who have a medical condition. It’s the best way Farnan sees to preserve the library’s mission to serve all, whether they are parents and kids coming to story time, seniors using the internet or people who sleep outside.
“It’s one of the few places where anyone can go, everyone is treated with decency and you don’t have to buy anything,” he said. “That’s rare. The value of having a public place is extraordinary.”
Colorado’s standard for meth contamination isn’t based on public settings
Here is how many reports of patrons affected by meth contamination the libraries received:
Two Boulder library employees reported feeling “dizzy” after walking into a smoke-filled room in late November and were checked out by paramedics, but both had normal vital signs and no evident symptoms of narcotics exposure.
And for public health experts who have studied meth exposure, that doesn’t come as a surprise.
Timeline of library closures due to meth contamination
DEC. 12: Preliminary site inspection at Boulder Public Library finds meth residue in bathroom exhaust vents and on some surfaces.
DEC. 20- 21: Based on “laboratory findings of amplified concentrations of meth,” more tests are conducted at Boulder Public Library. In total, 99 samples for meth were taken across the two-building library complex, 11 of which exceeded CDPHE’s standard for cleanup.
DEC. 20: Boulder library announced it was closing for testing.
JAN. 11: Boulder library reopens, but with bathrooms blocked off.
JAN. 11: Englewood Public Library and part of the Englewood Civic Center close after tests find meth contamination.
JAN. 11: Littleton library director notifies her staff that, in light of positive tests in Boulder and Englewood, their Bemis Public Library will be tested on Jan. 13.
JAN. 18: Bemis Public Library in Littleton closes after test results find meth contamination.
JAN. 19: Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs announces it will conduct testing inside all public restrooms in its 15 locations as a “proactive action.” Collecting samples could take three to four weeks, the district said. All libraries remain open.
JAN. 28: Arvada Library announces it is closing after preliminary tests find meth residue.
“I think the health risks when we find that amount — by design — are negligible,” said Mike Van Dyke, whose research on meth exposure helped establish the state’s decontamination procedures and sampling requirements.
In Colorado, a space is considered contaminated if meth residue is detected at levels above 0.5 micrograms per 15.5 square inches. The threshold is based on a child being exposed for a long period inside a home.
“It was really established for the worst-case exposure, which would be a toddler living 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in a contaminated home crawling over carpets, putting their hands in their mouth, doing all of those things,” said Van Dyke, now a professor at Colorado School of Public Health.
But public restrooms are a far different setting than one’s living room.
Nonporous tiled floors and countertops make it easy to wipe off meth residue, which is very water soluble. People don’t spend much time in a public restroom and typically try to avoid touching surfaces to limit the spread of germs.
“So let’s say you touch a surface, you wash your hands before you leave. You’ve generally washed the vast majority of meth off of yourself even if you were exposed,” he said.
“There’s really low opportunity for exposure.”
Even so, libraries are being held to an “inappropriate” standard not designed to measure meth exposure in public settings.
“The only standard they have is one that’s inappropriate, and from a risk-management perspective, their only real recourse is to clean it up to that one standard that exists,” Van Dyke said.
At the libraries in Boulder, Littleton and Englewood, meth residue that exceeded the state’s threshold was detected in the exhaust ducts in the bathrooms and on bathroom surfaces. Cleanup will cost tens of thousands. Englewood received an estimate of $38,000 to $45,000 for state contractors to decontaminate the library, according to an email sent to its staff. Boulder’s bill is tallying $105,000 so far, with an additional $68,000 in cleaning costs expected.
Thresholds requiring a space to decontaminate detected meth residue vary per state, with some states having much higher limits than Colorado. In Wyoming, for example, the threshold requiring decontamination is set at 1.5 micrograms, according to a 2019 review by The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
But few, if any, have standards set for public spaces.
Colorado’s threshold is used for all spaces where meth is detected, but it was designed around longer exposure times, specifically where someone is exposed to that level of meth for 24 hours, then reduced by 25 as a safeguard for toddlers, said Dr. Karin Pacheco, an allergist and occupational medicine expert at National Jewish Health.
“And that’s the case for most of these government levels — there is a protection factor built in to account for the more vulnerable people who may be exposed,” Pacheco said. “We need to look at where it’s being used and make sure that that usage is reduced, but the actual exposure itself, it’s unlikely to be harmful.”
Symptoms after being exposed to meth for a short period of time can include irritability, jitteriness and a fast heart rate. For kids, symptoms will likely be more severe.
Tests are limited in what they reveal — meth contamination could be present for long periods of time before it’s ever detected. Like in air ducts, for example.
“Exhaust vents really show what’s been in the air for a week, two weeks,” Pacheco said. “It doesn’t tell you the time of the exposure.”
Libraries found needles, white rocks, bag of meth
There’s no state regulation that requires public spaces to be tested regularly for meth, so testing won’t happen unless there is reason to believe meth is being used in a specific area.
At Boulder Public Library, the first to close for cleanup, staff suspected drugs were being used inside the restrooms at the main branch downtown for months.
Incident reports The Sun obtained under the Colorado Open Records Act show that 19 people were banned from the library for 364 days under drug-related suspensions last year — with most of them in November and December with seven suspensions respectively.
Burned aluminum foil was found in the stall Dec. 1. On six separate occasions that month, staff complained of a strong chemical smell coming from a stall where someone was inside. Library workers heard people discussing drugs in the bathroom stalls.
Last January, police found a woman inside a bathroom stall with a needle in her arm and three other syringes with meth in them, reports from the library show. Six months later, a patron told the library’s security that they needed help and turned in a bag of meth.
In September, someone reported that drugs were being used in the second-floor men’s bathroom and guards said they started experiencing symptoms from the smoke and fumes. Staff closed, the restrooms, but the person left the library before employees could issue a suspension.
Similar problems were reported in Englewood, where last July, workers and patrons saw a man using a small, white tube to snort a white powdery substance off a table in the back of the computer lab. In September, the city’s library staff found a pile of burned tin foil, a capped syringe and a plastic capsule of saline inside a handicap bathroom stall. Staff also found a backpack with needles and drugs inside the lobby, where security footage showed a man and a woman using the drugs minutes earlier.
More than once, patrons slipped staff notes saying that they believed drugs were being used in the men’s bathroom.
Less than a month before shutting down, a patron said he found what he thought was “a cooking kit.” Inside the small, black zippered case, there were several blades, a small plastic tube and a few small white rocks.
Days later, a nurse visiting the library advised workers to shut down the bathrooms because two people had been smoking fentanyl in the men’s room and the smoke was at dangerous levels.
Littleton’s Bemis Public Library, which has been closed since Jan. 18, had not caught anyone using drugs, but staff have found baggies, straightened paper clips and burnt foil. And they’ve encountered patrons who appeared high, library director Nancy Trimm said.
The library wrote up two incident reports in the first half of January, before the closure. Neither involved drugs. In one case, a man sitting on a bench outside the library asked other library patrons if they could tell a staff member to come out and talk to him. He said he had been banned from the library years earlier after being accused of grabbing someone by the throat and that he wanted permission to return. In the other case, staff called 911 to transport a woman to a homeless shelter.
“We haven’t had recent incident reports of staff finding drug paraphernalia or drug residue nor have any staff complained of health problems consistent with potential exposure,” the Littleton library director wrote in an email to Englewood library’s cultural and arts manager. “However, I don’t want to be so naive as to assume that means it’s not happening. We do have one private bathroom that has, in the past, been a problem due to people holing up in there to bathe, make out (!), or quite possibly use drugs.”
Englewood library’s Bethany Lafferty said she hoped the closures would bring about change.
“Part of (me) is glad to have the reality exposed so that we can make some changes to combat this behavior, but it is quite disruptive to have the library closed,” she wrote, suggesting that Littleton also have its public computer workstations and keyboards checked for contamination.
The issues aren’t new to libraries, but State Librarian Nicolle Davies fears the recent closures for meth contamination have cast a negative light on libraries when what is really going on is a public health crisis.
In 2021, 1,881 people died of drug overdoses in Colorado, 749 of which were from meth, according to data from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“We serve the public. We serve cradle to grave and everyone is welcome in our spaces. I don’t think that changes, I just think at any moment in time, you’re seeing different societal issues,” Davies said.
She hopes libraries can be part of the solution, but the drug use is not a problem libraries should bear on their own.
“I think it’s a much bigger conversation, and I would love for libraries to be at the table. But I don’t feel like it’s a public library’s responsibility to tackle,” she said. “It’s just insurmountable for us to try and tackle such a huge issue alone.”
Denver Public Library, where staff carries naloxone, is not testing for meth
Denver Public Library has no plans to test for methamphetamine residue, even at its Central Library just a few blocks from Civic Center park, which was closed in 2021 because of rampant drug use.
The library follows a robust cleaning protocol, which includes the ventilation system, said Michelle Jeske, the executive director who oversees all 27 branches. She has talked to Denver public health officials about the meth contamination at other libraries, and the library will update its cleaning policies if needed, just as it did after COVID, Jeske said.
“We don’t believe we have any public health concern,” she said.
When asked whether she thought suburban libraries overreacted by paying for lab tests and shutting their doors, Jeske declined to answer. “Every organization needs to follow its own public health leaders,” she said.
More than any library in the state, Denver Public Library has evolved in the past decade to help the growing number of patrons who are homeless, have mental illness or use drugs.
The library has “doubled down on our commitment to equity and supporting the most vulnerable people,” said Jeske, who’s worked in the library system for 21 years. “As needs have grown in Denver and beyond, we have pivoted.”
The library was one of the first in the nation in 2015 to hire a social worker, and now has an eight-person team that connects library patrons to community services for housing, mental health and substance use treatment.
In 2017, after a man died of an overdose in a Central Library bathroom, staff began carrying the overdose antidote naloxone. They give out toiletries, bottled water and lunches to people who need them. And in recent years, the library began sending two Sprinter vans and a bookmobile to bring books, movies and laptops to motels, homeless shelters and city-sanctioned tent communities.
It’s no different, Jeske said, than what the library does for any person who walks through its doors. There’s an entire department that focuses on children and literacy outreach. For its older patrons, the library added a genealogy program, because that’s what they wanted.
“The overall mission of public libraries hasn’t changed at all,” Jeske said. “It’s just that there are different needs.”
Librarians are service-oriented, or they wouldn’t have chosen to work with the public each day. But the past few years have taken a toll on library staff, Jeske said. “It’s a much harder place to work than it was 20 years ago.”
Still, 99% of patrons are following the rules, visiting a community space in order to learn.
“It’s a place of joy and a place of belonging and community,” Jeske said. “Too often, the sad things that can happen in a public place are what drives the news. Most days of the week in most of our locations, people are coming and meeting their neighbors and going to storytime.”
Suburban libraries are far behind Denver in providing services
As the Denver Public Library has increased services for vulnerable patrons, suburban libraries say their city leaders have questioned whether they want the library to become a point of service for people who are homeless or addicted to drugs.
In Littleton, library employees have taken in-person training courses the past two years from Ryan Dowd, author of “The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness.” And since 2018, after a rise in incidents, the library has had a police officer in the building 20 hours per week at peak times.
Bemis Public Library does not have a social worker or outreach worker, however, so the task of approaching people who are violating rules — sleeping on the floor, behaving erratically or being too loud — often falls to librarians.
While still a small segment of the people who visit the library, the number of homeless patrons has increased significantly in the past five years, said Trimm, the Littleton library director.
The Littleton library hasn’t determined yet when it can reopen, as it’s still figuring out a plan for remediation. For now, its 45 employees are working from home or were assigned to other city departments. Some are holding children’s storytime in the city council chambers and at a local coffee shop.
Asked whether she regretted testing, Trimm said she was grateful to know that the library can “provide a safe environment for our patrons” going forward. “It certainly never feels good to have our services closed or greatly restricted to our community,” she said, “and so that is really difficult, obviously.”
In Boulder, library director Farnan has asked the Boulder Police Department’s narcotics officers to teach library staff how to recognize when people are drug addicted and how to know when to call the police. The library’s requests to the city to hire social workers or peer navigators were rejected a few years in a row, but the library has money in the budget this year to hire a part-time employee to connect people to community services.
Farnan questions why some people are so shocked to learn people are smoking drugs in their local libraries, considering libraries are only a reflection of society, places where “there are millionaires next to housewives next to toddlers next to college students next to people who are housed next to people who are unhoused.”
“It’s like we cannot believe that society has stooped so low. People are smoking in the library?” he said. “But we knew about this 20 years ago. Why didn’t we do something?”