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Salt Lake Police
In a meth house, the drug covers everything that a child can touch.

OGDEN — The screen flashes mostly pink as name after name unfurls on the computer. Pink means positive for drugs, and meth exposure makes up 90 percent of positive hair tests done on children here at the Weber-Morgan Children's Justice Center.

This computer data also serve as a sad tutorial about the effect that meth exposure has on the bodies, minds and emotions of children.

Entry No. 231 is a 3-year-old boy. "Appears afraid," according to a nurse's notes. The same little boy came to the Children's Justice Center a year ago to have his hair tested for drugs. He was positive for meth then, and a year later he is positive again.

Entry No. 111: "Behavioral acting out, nosebleed, skin irritations, eye irritation, abdominal pains, decreased appetite." The child is 4.

Another entry: "Difficulty falling asleep, nightmares, developmental delays." This is a 7-year-old boy.

About 100 children a year come to the center on orders from the court, law enforcement or social workers. They have tremors, twitches, convulsions, anxiety, paranoia, weight loss and other signs of neglect. They are hard to get to sleep and hard to wake up.

Sometimes, after kids are out of the meth environment, they crash just like their parents do after a binge.

These are the obvious physical manifestations of being in a home where meth is used, sold or made.

Nicola Erb, an epidemiologist at National Jewish Hospital in Denver, has participated in several studies of houses where meth production and use was simulated.

"Meth covers everything. It covers their toys. It covers their skin. It covers what they crawl upon. It covers everything," she told colleagues recently while in Salt Lake City.

Penny Grant is a University of Oklahoma pediatrician who studies meth effects on children. "The kids are eating it. They're inhaling it. They're ingesting it. They're getting it every way you can think of," she said.

And what worries doctors and child advocates most is, they simply don't know the long-term effects of Utah's meth epidemic on children exposed to the drugs.

"We just don't know what's going to happen to these kids," said Jeanlee Carver, who supervises children's medical treatment at the Children's Justice Center. "Will it be social problems? Will it be violence? Will it be paranoia?"

Will children suffer brain damage as research shows adult addicts do?

Methamphetamine changes how the brain works. It mimics neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, which regulates the feel-good mechanism in the body.

"This stuff does become a brain toxin," said Glen Hanson, a University of Utah neuropharmacologist.

Usually neurons recycle dopamine. But meth fools neurons into taking it up just like they would dopamine. Once inside a neuron, the drug causes it to release lots of dopamine. The dopamine rush causes an extra sense of pleasure that can last all day.

"You're flying high on dopamine until you crash," Grant said.

Even small amounts of meth can make a person more awake and active, lose their appetite, and become irritable and aggressive. It also causes blood pressure to increase and the heart to beat faster.

The same thing happens to children who are exposed. And because research has been limited, what this means for children long term isn't known.

"We don't know how much meth is absorbed if you touch that night stand or that coffee table," Erb said

Researchers do know that meth does get into children's bodies when they live with parents who make or use the drug.

"Meth itself hangs around," said Karen Buchi, a University of Utah pediatrician who studies drug effects on children.

Buchi has tested hair samples from 425 kids ages 5 to 18, including 81 who lived in homes with meth labs. Nearly half — 203— tested positive for meth, according to preliminary results.

Whether exposure results in behavioral or medical problems remains to be seen.

Preliminary results of research at Brown University show babies born to meth-addicted mothers are born small and more likely to have subtle neuro-behavioral differences. They cry a lot, Buchi explains. They are irritable, and their nervous systems are disrupted.

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In addition to drug contamination, the often abusive, violent and neglectful environment in which children grow up causes social and behavioral problems.

"It's not surprising that these kids have development delays because if you're on meth, you're not going to be reading to your child," Grant said. "I think if these kids can learn at all, it's a miracle."

Researchers need to get a better understanding of how meth and the lifestyle surrounding it impact children, Buchi said.

"We still have a ways to go to make sure we are changing the trajectory for these children."

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