What happened in Room 216? | News

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What happened in Room 216?
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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- When St. Johns County Sheriff's deputies knocked on Room 216 at St. Augustine's Super 8 Motel Sept. 20, they say the three men inside had only been there a few hours.

But the methamphetamine operation already underway may have polluted the room for future hotel guests. It's a problem that could happen in virtually any hotel room you and your family check into.

So First For You, we hired an independent meth cleanup company to thoroughly test local apartments and hotel rooms -- including Room 216. While wearing protective gear, meth lab tech Danny Wheeler gathered wipe samples from the walls, ceilings and AC vents.

The rooms looked clean.

Wheeler concedes he didn't see any indicators of meth activity. "No telltale signs at all ... If I was to walk in to say, 'Hey is this a meth lab, I would probably walk out and say 'no.'"

But the wipe samples of Room 216 came back "hot." In other words, the chemical residue from that meth-making operation exceeded cleanup standards in 14 of the 22 states that have regulations.

"The ones that were meth labs should not have been occupied. That just confuses me a little. I was taught they are shut down until they are decontaminated," Wheeler said.

Problem is, there are no state cleanup standards in Florida. Duval and Hillsborough are the only counties in the state that have meth cleanup laws. And the federal Environmental Protection Agency only has voluntary standards.

Which means that hotels in some of the state's most popular destinations -- St. Augustine, Orlando, Miami -- may offer little protection to unsuspecting travelers.   

Jane Patel, owner of the Super 8 along with two other area hotels, says the staff did clean the rooms before re-renting them.

"We went into the room, cleaned out everything -- all the linens and everything was stripped, beds were wiped, walls were wiped,  carpets were shampooed."

But just cleaning a space doesn't remove all pollutants. Meth, or methamphetamine, is made by distilling common, over the counter drugs with highly reactive and toxic chemicals. The process creates an average of six pounds of hazardous waste for every pound of the drug made.

And the vapors contaminate everything -- carpets, furniture, drywall. The contamination has been known to cause a range of health effects, from breathing problems and migraines to liver damage, even cancer.

Wheeler notes the potential for the contamination to spread.

"To have a meth lab and then to clean it up and vacuum the floor  and then occupy it -- if it was a meth lab, well that vacuum cleaner you used to vacuum the floor, now you cross-contaminated how many rooms because you used that same vacuum cleaner to clean room 10, room 9, room 8, room 7 -- you see what I'm saying?

It's a growing problem for hotels and motels, which are easy targets for transient drug operations.

Homestead Studio Suites Hotel in Baymeadows was busted in March. Last year, it was a Scottish Inn in St. Augustine. And in just a three-month period in Jacksonville this summer, police broke up meth operations at three separate Motel 6 locations.

When we tried to rent the room at the Motel 6 on Youngerman Circle in Orange Park to test it, we were told it was "unavailable."  But there are no state laws to keep a motel owner from renting the room within hours of a bust.

Such was the case with room 216 at the St. Augustine Super 8, a motel popular with customers of the nearby Outlet Malls.

When we arrived to check in -- 12 days after the meth lab was discovered -- we snapped this picture of the room before its scheduled maid service. Clearly, it had been in use. And it was rented to us just an hour later.

Owner Jane Patel acknowledges the room was back in use soon after the bust. But she has no desire to put her customers at risk.

"I didn't think we need to, because we've done everything we could as far as wiping down, cleaning carpet."

After we showed her our test results, she said she would re-clean the room and let it air out. Meth experts say that's not enough. But right now, there's nothing to make hotels do more -- and no way your family would know.

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So what should you do?  

First, a simple Google search should turn up any busts at a hotel you'd like to stay in, no matter what the city.

Second, the federal DEA has a website (http://www.justice.gov/dea/clan-lab/fl.pdf) that lists some locations of some clandestine drug labs -- though most agree it represents only a fraction of the total.

Finally, if you are concerned, ask. While there may not be legal obligations, the hotel or motel has moral ones.

There's also growing pressure on lawmakers to do something to protect Florida residents and tourists. Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz and his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, have asked the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation to implement emergency rules governing disclosure and cleanup.

The letter notes:

"Tourism is a bedrock of Florida's economy. We cannot operate in an environment where visitors could unwillingly and unknowingly be placed in a hotel or motel room, caked with toxic
chemicals, that we would not allow law enforcement to enter without protective masks and hazmat suits."

Read their full letter here.

Find and contact your own lawmaker at http://www.flsenate.gov/senators/find and http://www.myfloridahouse.gov/sections/representatives/myrepresentative.aspx.

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