Are You Living in a Former Meth Lab?

Houses once used as meth labs dot the country and pose health risks to their future residents

Are You Living in a Former Meth Lab?
Was this home used as a methamphetamine lab? [Credit: tiswango, Flickr.com]
By | Posted April 28, 2010
Posted in: Health
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Jaimee Alkinani and her husband had just bought their first home in a quiet suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah. The house was nice: three bedrooms, tree-lined street, kids riding bikes down the sidewalk, and friendly neighbors who waved when they passed. The family was on their way — they’d also just opened a small business near their home, had an eleven-month-old child, and Jaimee was eight months pregnant. Life had officially started for the Alkinanis. But soon things turned for the worse.

A few days after they had moved in, a neighbor welcomed them with disturbing news. “Your house used to be a meth lab,” he said — a fact that the seller had never disclosed. So they called their realtor. He told them not to worry, that the house had been decontaminated. He even produced a certificate from the local health department to prove it.

Then the family started getting sick. Within five months, Jaimee and her husband developed sinus problems that required surgery. When their baby was born, he had serious lung issues that caused him to stop breathing a few times. He also wasn’t gaining weight, and was in and out of the hospital.

So the Alkinanis had their house tested for methamphetamine. The results made Jaimee put her kids in the car and immediately abandon her new home, with all the family’s possessions still inside. The house’s level of methamphetamine contamination was 63 times higher than the level at which the Utah State Health Department condemns a house.

Houses formerly used as meth labs, called meth houses, put their residents at risk of serious health consequences, says Stan Smith, a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Drug Endangered Children Task Force, a division of the California Drug Enforcement Agency.

Upon moving into a meth house, people have experienced short-term health problems ranging from migraines and respiratory difficulties to skin irritation and burns. Long-term problems are less well known, but the results from a 2009 study in Toxological Sciences suggest that methamphetamine chemicals may cause cancer in humans.  And because children have small, developing bodies and a tendency to play on the ground and put things in their mouths, they are especially susceptible to adverse health effects from meth toxins. “When we go into a lab, if there are children, the first thing we do is take the children to the hospital and assess them for contamination,” said Smith.

The chemicals used in methamphetamine production are highly toxic and range from pseudoephenadrine — the main ingredient in meth and active ingredient in decongestants — to any one of 32 other precursor chemicals. These include acetone, the active ingredient in nail polish remover, and phosphine, a widely used insecticide.

Home-cooking meth spreads toxins to every inch of the room where the meth was cooked and beyond. Nothing escapes contamination — the carpet, walls, furniture, drapes, air ducts, even the air itself becomes toxic. “Ingesting some of these chemicals, even a tiny drop, can cause immediate death,” said Smith.

“When we go into a meth lab, we have on respirators, Tivec suits, shoe coverings, gloves, and eye goggles,” said Sergeant Cory Craig, a state highway patrolman and narcotics specialist based in northern Missouri. Police treat methamphetamine labs as hazardous waste sites. They remove meth-making hardware and chemicals, and often hire professional cleaning companies to sanitize the house.

The sheer amount of chemicals removed from labs is staggering. Consider Missouri alone. “Since 1998 we’ve seized 12,354 meth labs, 251,000 pounds of solid waste, and 118,000 pounds of toxic waste,” Craig said.

In dealing with toxic chemicals, most meth lab clean-up crews follow general guidelines. In the room where the meth was made, they scrub all surfaces, repaint the walls, replace the carpets and air filters, and air out the property. However, there are no national standards for meth lab cleanups — regulations differ from state to state. And in some states, getting a license to decontaminate a house is as easy as taking a few hours of class and a written test. “There are some bad certification methods out there. You could be a pizza delivery guy, study for a month, pay $250 and be certified,” said Joe Mazzuca, a methamphetamine contamination expert and CEO of Meth Lab Cleanup, a nationwide meth-lab-specific cleanup company based in Boise, Idaho. In the Alkinanis’ case, the person who decontaminated their house shirked his responsibility by cleaning too quickly and not using the correct cleaning agents.

And while some states, such as Colorado, Washington and North Carolina, employ effective regulations, some experts think that many may not. In Idaho, for example, a former lab is deemed “clean” when there is less than one tenth of a microgram of methamphetamine per square centimeter in the room where meth was cooked. If the amount of meth detected is at such a low level, some state regulators think, meth’s precursor chemicals are at low levels too.  “We just check for meth,” said Jim Faust of Idaho’s Clandestine Drug Lab Cleanup Program, a statewide program based in Boise, Idaho.

Like Idaho, many states only check for meth in the room where the drug was cooked. This method doesn’t account for toxic dust or harmful chemicals that may have traveled to other parts of the house. Another compounding factor is that many states do not require that the person cleaning the meth house be professionally trained or licensed in methamphetamine or hazardous waste cleanup.

Of all the toxic chemicals in a meth house, methamphetamine itself is probably the hardest to clean up, but it’s actually the least toxic. Meth’s precursors pose the greatest health risk to residents of a former meth lab. When people smoke or shoot meth they face serious health risks, but they usually don’t die; they just get high. Many of meth’s toxic precursors, if smoked or injected, are lethal.

Even if a meth house is cleaned properly, some experts worry that meth toxins may hang around. Glenn Morrison, an engineering professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo., questions the adequacy of current meth house cleanup standards, emphasizing their failure to ensure the removal of toxins that are absorbed by the home. “These clean-ups tend to be somewhat superficial when it comes to permanent building materials,” he said.

Morrison recently received funding from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to investigate exactly how methamphetamine contamination resides in buildings. He hopes to figure out whether current meth lab cleanup protocols properly address contamination. “Building materials absorb pollutants, even if the materials are not obviously porous or fleecy. This contamination can be re-released, even after the building has been cleaned,” Morrison said.

Professional meth house cleanup contractors estimate that about 90 percent of meth houses are never uncovered, and their tenants will likely never know about their homes’ toxicity. Many of the meth houses that are discovered are listed on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Clandestine Drug Lab Registry or on other state databases.

The DEA’s registry lists 113,464 meth labs that were uncovered from 1999 to 2008. But this figure doesn’t account for any undiscovered meth labs and many meth experts think it’s an underestimate.  “The record keeping is horrific.  The DEA’s list can’t be relied upon because it’s completely voluntary,” said Dawn Turner, who started methlabhomes.com, a free, web-based resource for people who have unknowingly purchased a meth house. “I’ve heard estimates that there are a million to a million and a half meth homes and most of them are never found by the police department,” she added. In the area where the Alkinanis lived, there were 250 known meth houses and most of their owners had no clue about their homes’ nefarious past.  The exact number of meth houses in U.S. is still unknown.

And although meth houses are more concentrated in certain states — Missouri is the meth capitol of the world, with 1,471 labs discovered in 2008 alone — there are meth houses in all fifty states. Consider a lab found in Framingham, Mass., a town with an average home price of around $350,000. Or a lab found in Norwalk, Conn., where the average home is valued at $694,000. “There is a misconception that these houses are crack houses. They are absolutely not. A meth house in Kentucky recently went on the market for $700,000 dollars,” Turner said.

With so many homes potentially contaminated by methamphetamine production, meth experts estimate that thousands to tens of thousands of people have discovered that what they thought was the American dream — a nice home for the family — is actually an American nightmare — the potential cause of a range of health problems and a stack of medical bills. But is the issue receiving enough attention? Not for people like Turner. “States are really dragging their feet on this issue,” she said.

The Alkinanis agree. Because there were no meth lab disclosure laws in Utah at the time they bought their house, they have no financial or legal recourse. “We are paying the price for what one person did,” said Jaimee Alkinani. “My child will likely have a lifetime of permanent medical issues because of this house, and we are going into bankruptcy because we can’t sell the house.”

Posted in: Health

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  1. Where’s the data suggesting that former meth labs are really hazardous at the levels the laws have set? I find nothing in the peer-reviewed literature that looks at chronic effects of exposure– only stuff looking at people exposed to cooks or 24 hours or 48 hours later or in active cleanups of remaining labs themselves.

    The DEA often pushes drug scare stories, clean-up companies are for-profit businesses and families will quite understandably panic if told they live in a toxic meth lab site. But how do we know that that’s the cause of their problems?

    If the risk isn’t real, these registries and labeling of sites are destroying real estate value for no good reason, possibly bankrupting people.

    If there is data showing that people living in former meth labs have a higher level of health problems than others, please cite it– and please quantify it in context. If not, it’s important to include skeptical sources and not just pass on drug warrior bluster.

    Maia Szalavitz, April 28, 2010 at 3:58 pm
  2. There are plenty of data to show the health effects of the hazardous chemicals used to manufacture meth. It is no secret and it was not developed by DEA. OSHA has standards for all the chemicals used whether flammable, corrosive, explosive, toxic, etc. Hospital data also show the heath effects of meth on users. Between the DAWN statistics kept by hospitals and the National Jewish Medical Research Center in Colorado, the reader’s head will spin with all the information they need.

    Rolf P. Hill, April 29, 2010 at 3:02 pm
  3. Some of the residues from manufacturing meth are extremely hazardous. These may include volatile forms of iodine (hydrogen iodide, methyl iodide, elemental iodine), volatile forms of chlorine (hydrogen chloride, radical chlorine), and red phosphorus. Red phosphorus emits phosphine when exposed to moisture including high humidity. Not all meth labs leave these compounds. A seldom-used method can leave mercury. Other contaminants can be left behind but these I’ve listed are typically the most hazardous. Methamphetamine can be hazardous if the concentration is high enough. The most vulnerable are children below the age of 2. The method used to decontaminate is important. Painting or other encapsulation measures are normally insufficient to contain iodine, phosporus, and mercury vapors. These three contaminants are extremely hazardous but rarely tested for. The method used to decontaminate is very important. Washing materials from walls, etc. then vacuuming contaminants from the floor can leave contaminants in subflooring. At a minimum, washing should be followed by removal of absorbent floor materials. Another method, demolition, may also be insufficient to decontaminate. For example, where a meth lab is used in an unfinished basement, a protocol directing removal of sheetrock, flooring, cabinets, ducts, and the furnace, then painting all remaining materials may leave occupants at a dangerous risk. Removing the least-contaminated materials and painting over the most-contaminated materials is not a reasonable decontamination effort. Some people attempt decontamination with extremely high concentrations of sodium hypochlorite. I recently decontaminated one of these sites to abate the radical chlorine emitted from the hypochlorite residue. A dwelling where someone smoked methamphetamine is not a meth lab. The lowest pre-decontamination test result I’ve seen at a confirmed meth lab is 15 micrograms (15ug). Where a dwelling was or may have been a meth lab, a protocol capable of decontaminating meth lab residues, not just methamphetamine, should be used. And decontamination should be followed by testing, at a minimum, for meth lab chemicals such as iodine, chlorine, phosphorus, and in some instances – mercury. Testing after decontaminating a meth lab is only appropriate where a decontaminating protocol capable of decontaminating the most hazardous residues is used. The most hazardous meth lab chemicals are far easier to decontaminate than methamphetamine. Testing only for methamphetamine makes sense if a protocol capable of decontaminating the extremely hazardous but easy to decompose chemicals is used. If the difficult-to-decompose methamphetamine is gone, you can be assured the other residues were gone long before.

    Michael Rowzee, May 22, 2010 at 11:47 pm
  4. My 21 year old daughter, who was born physically handicapped with Arthrogryposis Multiple Congenita, a disability of her limbs and joints, moved into her very first home away from ours about two years ago. It is a home that is very close to ours and had been totally renovated. It was a dream come true for her to be able to live away from home and have a beautiful home. However, I think the home is killing her. Since she moved in two years ago, she developed respiratory conditions and a lung disease called bronchiectasis, an uncurable lung disease which is ultimately a recurring constant lung infection. She has been on every kind of medicine, now takes daily breathing treatments, which really have no affect in improving her breathing. Her chest is constantly heavy like an elephant is on her chest, she coughs up tissue that looks like skin. She has a worse cough then someone with emphysema. The house she lives in HUD pays the majority of her rent. This was not a HUD approved house until I found the house available one day and the landlord decided to accept HUD. My daughter is physically handicapped and lives on Social Security and has to rely on food stamps and medicaid. It is a total shame that she is not striken with a life-long incurable lung disease which I believe is caused by her house. The house has had many problems along the way, the central air unit fails to work properly. The water pipes have bursted several times and I actually thought her lung disease was mold related. But the last time her pipes broke her landlord disclosed to her and the man fixing the pipes the house was previously a meth lab. It was his sister-in-law living there, and appearantly she learned electrical, so she could rig the electric and smoke detectors to prevent the house from catching fire. When my daughter was given a CO detector from her friends mother, the CO detector wouldn’t stop alarming in the house. My daughters lung disease is unbearable, she is constntly hacking, her sinuses are constantly clogged with no relief from any sinus or nasal medication. Her best friend who is her care giver has suffered from non-stop migraines since they moved into this home.
    I want to know who I have to contact and what legal recourse I have to deal with this situation.
    How do I get the house tested for meth levels, and how do I know if the tester is legitimate or just a fraud? Please help.
    Andrea

    andrea langner, July 10, 2012 at 9:10 am
  5. I agree, that govt., & organizations, jsut as businesses do, use anything they can, to map themselves & make more moeny, or gain more power, but ehre’s a recent story. Appears meth containmination is valid.
    http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/mystery-illness-solved-family-discovers-home-meth-lab-184815233.html

    Methstory Onyahoo, October 1, 2012 at 8:20 pm
  6. I have to agree with poster #1; I still haven’t seen hard data in the responses that backs these claims up. OSHA does have permissible exposure limits for these materials; are you saying that the airborne levels in these houses exceeds the OSHA PEL’s? Just reciting the names of chemical compounds because they are long and complicated-sounding doesn’t make them hazardous at the levels they exist in former meth houses. If these chemicals are so lethal, why don’t all of the meth heads die instantly when they’re cooking meth? After all, they’re probably exposed to levels many orders of magnitude higher while cooking and living there than the residual levels in an empty house. Hard data, please. These kinds of stories play on the chemical-phobia of an uneducated public.

    Manny Ephraim, October 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm
  7. For those of you wanting more hard data that backs up these claims, please come live in our current house. We are going through this nightmare right now and we are frantically searching for information on how to clean up our belongings so that we don’t have to loose everything when we move out. We rented a home and our landlord did not disclose that the previous renter cooked meth here. We have three dogs that have all developed health issues. I have constant respiratory problems, itchy skin, watery eyes, etc. Luckily my husband is the least affected, but he also spends the least amount of time in the house because of his work. It is sad that there is not more information out there on cleaning up after being exposed to toxins left in a not properly cleaned home.

    Michelle Dovin, October 30, 2012 at 1:02 pm
  8. I agree with poster 7. Anyone who wants to disprove the effects of meth labs, come work in my office. My mother has developed breast cancer, and now have polyps in her lungs.

    Raymond, February 3, 2013 at 8:59 am
  9. i’m looking at a house to move into. it’s be completely remodeled. it had a meth lab in it and blew up. how do i find out if this house will harm my family? I don’t want to buy something that could kill us.

    sandra cundiff, February 10, 2013 at 1:50 pm
  10. Just look at pictures of people who ingest meth and what it does to them over time…..need say no more

    Tonya, June 26, 2013 at 10:13 am
  11. To Michelle poster #7,

    Can you share what you discovered on how to clean your personal belongings??

    I’m not only working on an educational video but I’m 95% sure I am in the same boat as you and millions of others.

    If anyone can give any help on this I would greatly appreciate it.

    Leo, July 17, 2013 at 9:47 am
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