Eating 100 pounds of Tent City soil won’t get you high

When the province announced it was building a playground on the Tent City property, it said the soil needed to be removed to deal with “contaminants” from “minor gas spills and trace amounts of methamphetamines.”

The media duly reported that information, and why not? We can’t have children running around on meth-y soil in the Garden City. They might get a contact high!

The fuel spills were entirely believable, but the “traces” of meth set off red flags for me. It seemed unlikely that enough meth was in the soil to pose a public health hazard. So how much meth are we talking about? The soil testing report, posted online as a result of a Freedom of Information request, had this to say:

“For the Illicit drugs, no BC [Contaminated Sites Regulation] standards have been developed. As such, the laboratory detection limit was used as the standard. Any detectable concentration of illicit drugs in the soil was considered an exceedance” (p. 11).

Meaning if they found any meth at all in the “worst case scenario” samples, they would report it as too much meth. Okay then. Drumroll, please…

“Detectable concentrations” of methamphetamine were found in two soil samples, to the tune of 0.15 micrograms and 0.40 micrograms per gram of soil (p. 46). If you’re like me, those numbers won’t mean a heck of a lot, so some context might help.

0.40 micrograms is 0.0000004 grams. That’s still meaningless, I know, but it’s really small. A check mark written in pencil weighs 1 microgram – more than twice as much. Doing some quick math based on this piece, when you’re mining for gold, apparently there are about 1.3 micrograms of gold per gram of soil. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was far more gold in Tent City’s soil than meth. One final comparison: an average grain of sand weighs fifty micrograms – that’s 125 times more than the amount of meth we’re talking about.

Now I know what you’re thinking: my child eats buckets and buckets of soil, and I’d rather that soil be meth-free. A Google search suggests that an adult could OD if they ingest 150 milligrams of meth, depending on tolerance levels and a variety of factors. You’d have to eat 827 lbs of the worst-case scenario Tent City soil to get to that level. That’s like eating a couple of lions, or 19,743 Timbits, in a single sitting. At that point the meth is going to be the least of your problems.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you. We’re not talking overdose levels of meth in adults – you don’t want your child to feel any drug-related effects when they’re eating their bodyweight in dirt. Let’s tackle that one next.

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    Stock photo of a baby eating dirt; meth content unknown. Image source:  Pexels .

Stock photo of a baby eating dirt; meth content unknown. Image source: Pexels.

According to one source, you could experience “light stimulation” from 5 milligrams of meth. You can get 5 milligram prescription doses of meth from a pharmacy, seemingly for children as young as six, but let’s go with that number anyway. If we divide down to get to the bodyweight of a two-year-old, that would mean they would have to eat 7.5 kg of soil (16.5 lbs) to cross into the “light stimulation” stage. If they ate 30.1 kg (66 lbs) of soil, they just might get high.

As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t let your child eat between 17 and 66 lbs of soil. That’s too much soil.

All of this back-of-the-napkin math is beside the point. Remember, these are worst-case scenario tests – tests that were specifically looking for drugs where they thought they might find them. And even then they came up nearly empty. The tests found only trace amounts of meth in two samples. Despite some reporting to the contrary, there were no detectable levels of any other “illicit drugs” found in any soil sample.

I wrote previously that the Tent City playground is about displacement first, and playgrounds second. Given that the playground is going ahead, it makes sense that the government would want to apply fuel contamination standards for “urban park land use” (p. 3). The report lists multiple instances where those tests exceeded the fuel contamination standards, but pretending that drugs had anything to do with removing the soil is ridiculous.

When talking about Tent City soil remediation, choosing to put micrograms of meth front and centre without context plays into public fears about poor and homeless Victorians using drugs. Portraying Tent City residents as having destroyed the land with methamphetamines may have helped cement some people’s support for displacing those individuals. The report’s authors were only documenting what they found, and the interpretation was left to the government and the media. Contrary to the narrative that Tent City residents were throwing so much meth on the ground that the soil had to be trucked out of town, the test results suggest that it wasn’t a significant factor.

Stephen Harrison