The Shady, Unregulated Business of Testing Homes for Meth
In certain parts of the country, like Oklahoma or Missouri, every few years a story will pop up in the local news that goes something like this: A nice family moves into what seems like a perfectly good home. Then, mysteriously, they start getting sick. Eventually, someone discovers that the house was once a production site for methamphetamine, uncovering the root cause of the innocent family’s troubling symptoms.
Moving into a meth-contaminated home can cause long-lasting harm to the new owners or renters. Since many “meth homes” go undetected by law enforcement and property-handling middlemen, the problem might not reveal itself until residents start feeling ill. The side effects of living in a former meth lab can also be difficult to identify, varying from headaches and dry mouth to kidney or brain damage.
The threat of meth contamination has spawned a booming cottage industry in testing suspected meth homes and cleaning tainted properties, with a few major firms and dozens of smaller operations popping up nationwide. While some of these testers and cleaners are pros, the complex nature of the threat, combined with inconsistent industry regulation, has enabled fear-mongering, incompetence, and even fraud. Residents fearful of contamination can end up paying for excessive services, or for cleanup techniques that range from extravagantly pointless to potentially harmful. Bogus or bumbling companies can also bungle the meth detection process, or fail to effectively clean a contaminated house.
“The industry is driven by legitimate health concerns,” industrial hygienist and meth cleanup expert Caoimhin P. Connell says, but also by “fear-based marketing” and misunderstandings.
Perhaps the trickiest truth underpinning the complexities of meth cleanup is that residue of the drug itself isn’t what makes people sick. Although large quantities of meth residue can have an effect on people, the byproducts of making it—a process that involves nasty substances like drain cleaner, paint thinner, and cold medicine—constitute the bulk of the hidden health threat. There are also several different types of meth labs using different processes, and various accidents can occur within in any type of lab, all leading to different types and levels of contamination in a given home.
Sickened individuals rarely find out exactly what meth-making component affected them. But inhaling noxious particles of any sort often leads to breathing problems. Last year, residents in a Longmont, Colorado, apartment complex found out their units were contaminated after coming down with a persistent, hacking cough; at least one individual was diagnosed with pneumonia and an upper respiratory infection. Other victims have brushed up against irritant chemicals permeating their home’s surfaces and developed chronic skin problems on top of the respiratory issues. Still other families—like one couple forced to flee a contaminated home in Portland, Tennessee, with their toddler last summer—have developed debilitating migraines and dizziness.
“The exposure to [noxious] materials will be site specific,” says Connell. “Therefore the health implications can be difficult, or even impossible, to predict without having to spend exorbitant financial resources to evaluate all of the possible chemicals that might be present.”
Because it’s impractical to test for every possible chemical, homes suspected of contamination just get tested for traces of meth itself, usually by swabbing surfaces with special papers that react to even tiny amounts of it. Property owners and residents have the choice between self-testing their homes using inexpensive DIY kits (which offer limited reliability, and are often not accepted as proof of contamination under state law), or shelling out a few hundred dollars for a more thorough test by an industrial hygienist. Testing for meth residue is a less-than-airtight predictor of health risks; just smoking or storing meth in a home can leave residue but probably would not involve contamination with other harmful chemicals. But given the serious health risks, and lack of better options, experts like Connell believe a positive test is a strong signal that residents should consider thorough decontamination services by a vetted provider.
Joe Mazzuca of Meth Lab Cleanup in Athol, Idaho, one of the most prominent remediation services in the market, argues that former labs are so common and dangerous that every home should receive a professional inspection before it changes hands. Undetected meth production sites are far more common than most would likely suspect—between 2004 and 2014, the Drug Enforcement Agency identified more than 100,000 home meth labs, many (but not all) of which now have to be listed as such before someone new moves in. And according to a 2014 Al Jazeera report, meth cleanup experts estimate that for every cook site detected, at least three more go undiscovered. Even when detected, a property owner may fail to disclose the home’s status or seek adequate cleaning services.
As contamination awareness grows, so will the number of former labs reported and decontaminated. But the industry is still in its infancy, and Connell suspects that some companies offering meth testing and remediation right now might not even know how to sample properly or read their data. This may lead to false positives, pushing people to seek more expensive remediation services they don’t need, or false negatives, giving people a perhaps dangerously undue sense of safety.
“Performing incompetent testing is worse than performing no testing at all,” Connell says. It “can lead to financial ruin which could have been avoided.”
Missouri University of Science and Technology’s Glenn Morrison, among the world’s leading methamphetamine contamination experts, notes meth production chemical residues still aren’t as common or consistently risky as substances like asbestos or radon. (Radon is a naturally occurring gas that seeps into homes through cracks and can accumulate to dangerous levels.) As such, he doubts every property needs to be checked. Instead he suggests only testing homes with known risk factors, and doing so cautiously and with the services of a well-reputed specialist. For example, foreclosed homes are often risky, as there’s often little information on them, especially when sold as is. Talking to neighbors or consulting police records may reveal suspicious activity at a site. And signs of possible meth use or production, like chemical stains in sinks and toilets, or distressed vegetation where byproducts could have been dumped, are real causes for worry.
Even Mazzuca, who would like to see some kind of blanket testing protocol, concedes that perhaps only states with notable meth problems, like Missouri, should require testing every home.
When a home is tested and the owners or residents move on to decontamination, they must be vigilant in making sure the hired cleaning company actually achieves what it claims. Professional meth decontamination is often a tedious process and requires training and safety gear, like hazmat suits. Depending on the context—including any clues a hygienist may have picked up about the level or type of contamination—these services will air out the property, replace air filters, scrub down surfaces with common detergents, paint over contaminated surfaces with a sealant, and flush out the plumbing with tons of water. (Meth is a particularly stubborn substance, so if cleaners can remove it, they have likely removed any other dangerous contaminants as well.) Depending on home size and contamination levels, this kind of intensive work can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars. Because of the number of variables between cases, low public awareness of meth contamination issues, and the possibility of huge paydays, the risk of hiring fraudulent or just incompetent cleaners who do not actually decontaminate the house is high.
These remediation services are inconsistently regulated across the country at best. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines on cleaning are just pointers that states can abide by or ignore. Accordingly, states vary wildly in the levels of meth residue they believe indicate danger and how that residue should be cleaned. Standards on who’s qualified to detect or clean meth residues are also woefully weak in some states, allowing people with zero environmental safety experience to roll through a few hours of classes, pay a quick fee, and start operating in the field, as a 2015 VICE report on small-scale cleanup operations illustrated. These low requirements can lead to shoddy cleaning. The Alkinani family in Salt Lake City learned as much when they got sick in a home that had been cleaned, but when re-tested still had 63 times the state’s meth contaminant threshold.
Unscrupulous cleaners may insist they need to gut homes or spray them down with what Connell refers to as “magic decontamination elixirs” at prices that can run $100,000 or more. Those elixir treatments, Connell and Mazzuca point out, are usually chemicals, sometimes also of questionable safety, that just make meth residues undetectable without addressing related contaminants. Morrison notes testing for methamphetamine post-remediation is likely not yet as robust as it needs to be, since residue saturated in upholstery, carpet, or even walls can seep to the surface post-cleaning if not properly removed—so it’s fairly easy for poor cleaning to slip under the radar, leaving people at risk.
“It’s unbelievable how many people out there say they can do this, and they just don’t have a clue,” says Mazzuca. “Most of them are good at one thing: cheatin’ and coverin’ it up.”
Without consistent regulations and monitoring systems for meth testing, cleanup, and remediation services, property buyers and residents are left with a dilemma: Meth contamination is a real risk, but practically speaking, so is cleaning it up.