Could your Home be Meth Contaminated?

Are you considering buying a new home? Or perhaps have a portfolio of rental properties? Then you need to be aware of the growing problem of methamphetamine (meth) contamination in New Zealand homes.

Contamination can come from a full-blown clandestine meth lab being run out of a house, but can also be from people smoking meth or ‘P’ regularly in their homes. “The majority of our clients have houses where people have been either smoking meth regularly in just a couple of rooms, or those who’ve been doing what they call ‘mini-bakes’ – where they’re just cooking up enough meth for their own personal use,” says David Donovan of Total Inspections, a Northland company that specialises in meth testing and the clean up of meth-contaminated homes.

And if you think you’re living somewhere that wouldn’t be affected, think again. According to Donovan, meth labs have been found all over New Zealand. “It’s not something that is found in one particular area or in one demographic. Meth labs have been found in most suburbs and towns across the country.”

Meth contamination is becoming such a big problem in New Zealand that Housing New Zealand in Northland recently announced it plans to test for meth every time a tenant moves out. The government agency says it has spent $231,361 decontaminating houses in Northland over the past three years. Across New Zealand as a whole, the number of houses decontaminated for meth by Housing New Zealand has risen from 28 two years ago to 174 in the first quarter of 2015.

The highest level of contamination is from clandestine meth labs, which produce meth to be sold. Illegal manufacture of meth in ‘backyard’ laboratories creates a number of risks not only to the health of people living in the home – both at the time and at a later date – but also for wider environmental safety. Chemical hazards at a meth lab include explosive, flammable, poisonous, corrosive and even radioactive substances, which may be in liquid, solid or gaseous form.

Donovan says that during the ‘cooking’ process, these dangerous chemical compounds become airborne. “They’re absorbed into the walls, ceilings, appliances, floors, carpets, sinks and drains, and curtains. It gets into everything. There’s also the risk of chemicals that were spilled during handling. And these chemicals don’t just disappear over time. We recently tested a house that had been empty of tenants for ten years, and we still found significant traces of meth.”

These chemicals are also present when a person is simply making a batch for personal use, or even smoking meth on a regular basis. “We’re finding that there are often just a couple of rooms in the house at a high level, usually the bathroom or the master bedroom if they’ve been smoking a lot of meth, and the kitchen if they’ve been making it themselves. If this is the case, we focus on cleaning the rooms that are testing above government guideline levels.”

Ministry of Health guidelines say the health problems that can arise out of contact with the multiple toxic chemicals include skin disorders, throat irritation, nausea, dizziness and headaches, as well as more serious neurological and respiratory issues. Children are also more likely to be effected, because of their lower tolerance to chemical exposure but also because they are more likely to come into contact with contaminated surfaces through crawling and putting objects in their mouths. Also the elderly and those who are immunocompromised due to medical treatment (ie: cancer treatment) can be badly affected by meth.

According to Donovan, the only way to get rid of these toxic chemicals is to complete a full remediation (clean up) of the affected house or rooms. “A standard clean of a meth-contaminated property isn’t enough. The types of chemicals that are used in the process of making meth are extremely harmful, and they absorb right into the materials in the home. We do a laboratory test to see if a home is under the Ministry of Health’s safe guideline for meth levels, which is fewer than 0.5 micrograms per ten square centimetres. If your home is over that level, it needs further detailed testing to determine the levels in each area and then a full clean by a professional company.”

Donovan says the remediation process for an ex-meth lab home can be expensive, because they have to strip the house, ripping off all the linings and removing all the soft furnishings. “It’s obviously much less if you’re just cleaning one or two rooms, it can be very affordable.”

“However, the best way to avoid this problem is to get your potential new home tested before you purchase it, and to get your rental property tested every time tenants move out. If you’ve tested before a tenant moves in, and then after they move out, it’s very clear who is at fault if you find traces of meth in that situation. It’s better to be safe, than sorry.”

Five ways to tell if your rental property might be meth contaminated:

  1. There are visible stains on carpet, curtains, walls and ceilings
  2. Strong chemical odors
  3. Sore eyes and headaches after visiting the house
  4. Waste includes empty medicine packaging, paint thinner containers and coffee filters with white or red powdery substances (from mini-bake)
  5. Plants dying around the drains

SIDE BAR: Environmental issue
Meth isn’t just a problem in our homes. In 2006, staff members from a US environmental department were participating in a stream restoration project in New Mexico when they detected acetone and dichloromethane contamination in the water. The two chemicals are both commonly used in the manufacture of meth, and were most likely discharged by a clandestine meth lab. They were responsible for the death of hundreds of trout and other native fish, insects and plant life along a seven-mile stretch of affected streambed.