''I can say we have some very promising preliminary data that indicates acute respiratory distress, and we're moving forward based on those results,'' said Dr. Sandra Wells. ''This will be the first information out there to address pulmonary injuries in children related to these exposures.''
Wells' work with the Montana Alliance for Drug Endangered Children has led to proposed legislation seeking to expand the offense of child endangerment, making it a felony to expose children to meth.
''The fact that there is no good data out there, nothing to record any of the dangers these children are facing, that's concerning,'' Wells said recently. ''We should be able to tell (state officials) with certainty what constitutes child endangerment.''
Social workers, law enforcement officers and pediatricians have reported children removed from meth houses with matted or missing hair, dental decay, dirty diapers, rashes and other signs of abuse and neglect.
But there's no data to show if a child exposed to meth will experience long-term lung problems, like asthma or pulmonary fibrosis.
''It's not like secondhand cigarette smoke where we know for a fact that exposure is harmful,'' Wells said. ''We treat meth as though it's radioactive, but in fact it's been approved for medicinal use at lower levels. I expect there probably is a safe level of exposure to meth, we're just not sure what it is.''
But without sound data, it's impossible to convey with any measure of certainty just how endangered these children have become, or how urgent their care should be.
Helena police officer Craig Campbell, who spent seven years as a narcotics officer, said seeing sick children in houses where meth busts were taking place led to a change in the way meth cases are investigated.
''We don't just look at building cases against adults suspected of manufacturing or distributing anymore,'' said Campbell, who has been training law enforcement and first responders through Montana's Alliance for Drug Endangered Children since its inception two years ago. ''Now we're also trying to prove and gather evidence for the crime of child endangerment.''
''We're terminating cases and raiding labs earlier than we normally would have,'' he said. ''As soon as we learn that a child is present, it becomes a priority to gain access and get them out of that environment. We don't wait for the distributor to make another purchase or possibly identify a higher-up. We just get the child out of that situation.''
Over the past few years, about one-third of all cases where children were removed from their families and placed into protective custody involved methamphetamine, said Dave Thorson, fiscal bureau chief for Montana's Child Protective Services.
''That's been fairly consistent over the years,'' he said. ''About two-thirds of our total placements involve drugs or alcohol of some kind, and a full one-third involved methamphetamine.''
Wells has been collaborating with her sister, Dr. Kathryn Wells, who is the medical director of the Denver Family Crisis Center.
Kathryn Wells wants to find a ''medical home'' for each child exposed to meth, so their health can be tracked over time.
''The only way to break this cycle is to follow these kids clinically, and that also helps translate controlled experiments into clinical research,'' she said.