What we know about Crystal Meth and the developing fetus


Theresa Brodie
Focus on Adoption magazine

Methamphetamine is by no means a new drug, but concern is growing steadily along with the usage statistics about the form known as crystal meth.

Crystal meth is a worrying combination of cheap, addictive, and dangerous, and it’s fast becoming the new drug of choice for youth in search of a long-lasting, euphoric high. There were a total of 31 methamphetamine-related deaths in BC between 2000 and 2004, according to a BC coroner’s report released in February of this year. Methamphetamine-related deaths were highest among 19- to 21-year-olds, followed by 22- to 24-year olds, and 25- to 27-year-olds, respectively.

While there is much concern over the effects of crystal meth on the users, there is another, often overlooked consideration: the effects of crystal meth on a developing fetus. According to Jan Radford, Director of Surrey Health Services for the Fraser Health Authority, there is little known about the effects this drug has on a developing fetus. “But,” says Radford, “we can speculate, given what it does to adults.”

What is it?

Crystal meth is a form of methamphetamine that can be smoked. Methamphetamine is classified as a psychostimulant, and is one of a group of drugs commonly referred to by the street name “speed.” While they are similar in their chemical makeup to amphetamines, methamphetamines have a stronger effect on the body’s central nervous system.

Crystal meth goes by a variety of other nicknames (ice, crystal, glass), each one chosen as a descriptor of the drug’s appearance, which is said to be similar to ice crystals or clear rock salt.

Crystal meth is created in illegal labs, often run from people’s homes using readily available ingredients such as ephedrine (a common ingredient in cold medications) and solvents. Due to the toxic fumes and residual chemicals that are left behind, once a meth lab has been in a house, that house is generally believed to be uninhabitable. There is also a risk of explosion in a meth lab due to the solvents being used. This poses a danger to anyone living in neighbouring homes. Meth labs have even been operated in apartment buildings. According to Radford, Langley has the highest per capita of crystal meth labs in the Lower Mainland.

What does it do?

There is plenty of information available about the effects of crystal meth on the user, from the biological and neurological processes to the sensations being experienced. The National Institute of Drug Abuse says on their Website that “methamphetamine releases high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which stimulates brain cells, enhancing mood and body movement. It also appears to have a neurotoxic effect, damaging brain cells that contain dopamine and serotonin, another neurotransmitter. Over time, methamphetamine appears to cause reduced levels of dopamine, which can result in symptoms like those of Parkinson’s disease, a severe movement disorder.” Parkinson’s disease can produce symptoms including rigidity and tremors in the limbs, bradykinesia of the limbs and body (bradykinesia includes difficulty initiating movement, slowness in movement, and incompleteness of movement), and postural instability. The primary cause of rigidity, tremors, and bradykinesia is a depletion of dopamine in certain areas of the brain.

Crystal meth users initially experience an assortment of pleasurable effects including feeling sexy, alert, and energized, with a sense of power and wellbeing. Unfortunately, once the pleasurable effects wear off, other less-desirable ones follow. According to the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, short-term side effects include restlessness, shakiness, sweating, anxiety, headache, blurred vision, dizziness, irregular heartbeat and chest pain; and overdose can cause delusions, hallucinations, high fever, delirium, seizures, coma, stroke, heart failure, and death. Use with alcohol and other drugs is especially dangerous. Long-term high dosages may result in nerve damage, chronic psychosis, paranoia, and hallucinations.

These long term effects are extremely disturbing. Radford says that it’s not the amphetamines or ephedrine that cause brain damage, but the solvents being added to the mix.

What about baby?

The AADAC states that babies born to amphetamine users are more likely to be born prematurely, have low birth weight, and experience withdrawal symptoms like agitation and drowsiness. They may also have an increased risk of birth defects. Some babies don’t even make it to full term because they suffer neonatal strokes and hemorrhaging. In addition to the drug being passed to the baby in utero, it also passes to nursing babies through the mothers’ milk.

At least one study has been conducted to determine the effects of methamphetamine in utero, but in mice. Findings from the study appeared in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics in a May 2002 article, which indicated that the male offspring suffered a more significant reduction of dopamine than did the female offspring, in the areas of the brain that are affected by Parkinson’s disease. One of the researchers, Dr. Alfred Heller, states, “If similar neurological effects are occurring in humans, males whose mothers used methamphetamine during pregnancy may be at a greater risk for developing these ailments.”

What next?

The effects in children who have been exposed to crystal meth in utero is an area that requires further study. It is speculated that the effects may be similar to those experienced by children exposed prenatally to cocaine or heroin; however, the manner in which social factors impact these effects cannot be accurately assessed without a controlled study.

According to an article by Karen Brandon which appeared in the Chicago Tribune  in June 2001, pediatrician Rizwan Shah is one woman who has begun to study children who have been prenatally exposed to methamphet-amine. According to the article, Shah’s study, which tracked 360 children in 2001, produced findings that “[children who have been prenatally exposed to methamphetamine] tend to be born prematurely. Full-term babies act more like premature infants, often showing difficulty in sucking and swallowing. They are very sensitive to touch and often shake.” The article goes on to say that, “older children seem to have more limits on their expressive language. ‘Fortunately, they show an excellent chance of recovery,’”[Shah] said, adding that “none of the children she has studied is mentally disabled.”

The only way to know the full extent of the any damage is to study the ongoing development of those individuals exposed in utero.

by Theresa Brodie