The metham­phetamine epi­demic causes heartache not only for users and their fam­i­lies, but also those who in­ad­ver­tently move into homes once used as il­le­gal drug labs, writes Sue Smethurst.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ● NICK CUBBIN

the toxic epi­demic threat­en­ing our homes

Imag­ine you’ve pur­chased your dream home, a sprawl­ing coun­try prop­erty for a treechange, with greens hills for the kids to run free, clean air to fill their lungs and a ram­bling old house to ren­o­vate into a forever fam­ily home.

Yet soon af­ter you move in, the kids start get­ting sick, re­ally sick. They have trou­ble breath­ing and sleep­ing, they’re con­stantly cranky and their skin is break­ing out in rashes.

You beat a path to the lo­cal doc­tor’s surgery, but no one can re­ally of­fer an ex­pla­na­tion for the symp­toms un­til there’s a knock at the door one day from the lo­cal coun­cil.

They have come to no­tify you that your new home was pre­vi­ously a clan­des­tine meth lab and your chil­dren are, in fact, show­ing lev­els of metham­phetamine in their sys­tem akin to that of an adult drug user. They are un­wit­ting meth ad­dicts.

It could be a scene straight out of Break­ing Bad, but this is a liv­ing night­mare for one Aus­tralian fam­ily, whose $500,000 Vic­to­rian coun­try home was so se­ri­ously con­tam­i­nated with the residue of metham­phetamine that it may have to be knocked down – and they had no idea they were liv­ing in a meth or “P” lab.

“For this par­tic­u­lar fam­ily, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied, this has been dev­as­tat­ing, but they’re not

alone,” says Flin­ders Univer­sity aca­demic and lec­turer Dr Jackie Wright, who has com­pleted a PhD on the health ef­fects of clan­des­tine meth labs. “I’ve met many fam­i­lies in the same cir­cum­stances,” she says. “Peo­ple are get­ting sick be­cause of the in­vis­i­ble tox­ins from meth. This is a big prob­lem, more wide­spread than we re­alise. We should be as aware of this as we are of the ef­fects of as­bestos and lead paint.”

Cook­ing up a toxic soup

In Aus­tralia and New Zealand last year, po­lice busted hun­dreds of meth labs – pock­ets of space used by drug deal­ers to “cook” up a blend of toxic chem­i­cals, such as drain cleaner, fer­tiliser and ace­tone, into the most pop­u­lar street drug, P, or “ice” as it’s known in Aus­tralia.

In the past, mak­ing meth was a large-scale pro­duc­tion, giv­ing off such foul-smelling odours that drug deal­ers tar­geted re­mote and ru­ral homes to set up their labs, but not any more.

As meth ad­dic­tion reaches epi­demic lev­els, deal­ers have stream­lined their meth­ods of mak­ing the drug, mean­ing any sub­ur­ban kitchen, bath­room, garage or even a space as small as a cub­by­house, can be­come a meth lab, with dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect.

“It’s such a toxic and pow­er­ful drug that the residue seeps into any por­ous sur­face – car­pet, cur­tains, plas­ter, even the tim­ber frames of homes,” says Dr Wright. “The im­pact is pro­found, from headaches and sleep de­pri­va­tion to res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems such as asthma and eye com­plaints. Some homes may have to be de­mol­ished be­cause they can’t be de­con­tam­i­nated.

“We are see­ing more and more peo­ple who have moved into homes with­out know­ing they were once used as a drug lab be­come sick. Even peo­ple who don’t use meth them­selves but share homes with meth users are be­com­ing sick.”

For Josh Marsden of Meth Lab Clean­ers Aus­tralia, busi­ness is boom­ing. He has de­con­tam­i­nated more than 80 clan­des­tine meth labs in homes around Aus­tralia. “We started our com­pany to do foren­sic and trauma scene clean­ing, but the need for clean­ing up meth labs has out­stripped that and it’s con­sum­ing our busi­ness,” he says. “There’s no way I’d buy a house or rent a house with­out test­ing for meth first.”

Josh’s com­pany has been in­volved with the clean-up of the ru­ral Vic­to­rian prop­erty men­tioned ear­lier. He was shocked when he vis­ited the farm to test the lev­els of con­tam­i­na­tion.

“It prob­a­bly can’t be re­me­di­ated be­cause there was meth residue ev­ery­where,” he says, “even in the sheds be­cause the cook­ing was hap­pen­ing there, too, so they may have to de­mol­ish ev­ery­thing and re­build.

Sadly, Josh says this is be­com­ing an all too fa­mil­iar sce­nario. “We’re see­ing fam­i­lies sick and suf­fer­ing be­cause of this,” he says. “There’s so much meth use that soon clean­ing up meth labs will be as com­mon as pest con­trol.”

Signs of meth pro­duc­tion in a home can in­clude:

“It’s such a toxic and pow­er­ful drug that the residue seeps into any por­ous sur­face. The im­pact is pro­found.”

• Brown stains on walls and red or yel­low stain­ing on the floors.

• Chem­i­cal stains around the kitchen sink, laun­dry, toi­let or stormwa­ter drains; oily residue on sur­faces.

• Un­usual chem­i­cal smells, blocked drains, miss­ing light bulbs, nu­mer­ous chem­i­cal con­tain­ers, stained glass equip­ment and cook­ware, and old tablets pack­ages ly­ing around.

• Drug para­pher­na­lia, in­clud­ing glass pipes and nee­dles, on the prop­erty.

Hun­dreds of labs

In New Zealand, Hous­ing New Zealand owns ap­prox­i­mately 64,000 prop­er­ties and found 688 of their homes tested pos­i­tive for meth con­tam­i­na­tion in 2015 to 2016. Auck­land holds the du­bi­ous hon­our of be­ing the coun­try’s leader in metham­phetamine pro­duc­tion, with more meth labs un­cov­ered by Hous­ing New Zealand than in any other city. Test­ing, clean­ing, then retest­ing meth labs in public hous­ing costs Hous­ing New Zealand a min­i­mum of $14,350 per house.

“Metham­phetamine poses the great­est threat to the public of all il­licit drug types, by a sig­nif­i­cant mar­gin,” warns Chris Daw­son, CEO of the Aus­tralian Crim­i­nal In­tel­li­gence Com­mis­sion. He says re­cent waste­water anal­y­sis (yes, sew­er­age tests) re­vealed meth use is much higher than pre­vi­ous stud­ies have shown, par­tic­u­larly in the coastal ur­ban ar­eas.

Mr Daw­son says there are tell-tale signs that a house is be­ing used as a clan­des­tine lab. Neigh­bours should look out for strong odours, di­verted elec­tric­ity, chem­i­cal con­tain­ers and waste around the prop­erty, blacked-out win­dows, hoses or pipes in strange places, blinds al­ways down and cars ar­riv­ing and leav­ing at strange hours.

“Clan­des­tine labs are dan­ger­ous and pose a sig­nif­i­cant risk to the com­mu­nity,” he says.

“Op­er­a­tors of these labs man­u­fac­tur­ing drugs often have lit­tle con­cern for the en­vi­ron­ment or public, and man­u­fac­ture in these labs has re­sulted in ex­plo­sions, which have se­verely dam­aged prop­er­ties and re­sulted in se­ri­ous in­jury and death.”

In the US, au­thor­i­ties have long been aware of the dan­gers of liv­ing in meth labs, par­tic­u­larly for chil­dren.

The US Of­fice of Jus­tice Pro­grams has is­sued wide­spread alerts, warn­ing that ex­po­sure to even the low­est lev­els of metham­phetamine can re­sult in headache, nau­sea, dizzi­ness and fa­tigue, while ex­po­sure to high lev­els can cause short­ness of breath, chest pain, eye and tis­sue ir­ri­ta­tion, chem­i­cal burns to the skin and even death.

Hun­dreds of cases of ill­ness have been re­ported by fam­i­lies af­fected by meth con­tam­i­na­tion and sick­en­ing pic­tures of chil­dren with skin abra­sions and rashes were re­cently pub­lished in the New York Daily News.

Many fam­i­lies have come for­ward shar­ing hor­ri­fy­ing sto­ries of the ef­fects of con­tam­i­na­tion.

The Holt fam­ily of Indiana spent five years go­ing back and forth to the lo­cal hos­pi­tal with their three

Auck­land holds the du­bi­ous hon­our of be­ing New Zealand’s leader in meth pro­duc­tion.

chil­dren, who had de­vel­oped se­vere breath­ing prob­lems af­ter they moved into their dream home.

The chil­dren be­came so sick, they needed res­pi­ra­tors to breathe. They dis­cov­ered their at­tic had been used as a meth lab. Health in­spec­tors also found high con­cen­tra­tions of meth on the kitchen bench­tops where Rhonda Holt had pre­pared her chil­dren’s food.

“We bought a house that even­tu­ally was go­ing to sen­tence our fam­ily to death,” she told The New York Times.

In New Zealand, we’re only be­gin­ning to scratch the sur­face of the prob­lem. De­spite the epi­demic of meth, we’re yet to reg­u­late the re­me­di­a­tion of prop­er­ties, or to ad­e­quately warn the public of the risk.

A 2007 study by the Na­tional

Jewish Health and Re­search Cen­ter in Den­ver found that liv­ing in a for­mer meth lab made chil­dren more likely to de­velop learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and caused long-term res­pi­ra­tory and skin prob­lems. The Den­ver study also found that more than 70 per cent of po­lice and law en­force­ment of­fi­cers who in­spected meth labs sub­se­quently re­ported health prob­lems.

“We’re only just be­ing to see how wide­spread this is,” says Dr Jackie Wright, who spoke with an ex­ten­sive list of case stud­ies for her PhD, all on the con­di­tion of anonymity. She in­ter­viewed the Vic­to­rian fam­ily, who are now su­ing the coun­cil for the clean-up costs.

“They did all of the usual pre­pur­chase checks and ev­ery­thing was fine, but within a week of mov­ing in, the kids be­gan get­ting sick. It’s been dev­as­tat­ing for them,” says Dr Wright.

“One of my case stud­ies is a sin­gle mum of two who moved into a rental prop­erty, which had been used as a clan­des­tine lab. Her neigh­bours knocked on her door to tell her they were sus­pi­cious of the pre­vi­ous ten­ants. She paid for test­ing and the lev­els of meth residue were sig­nif­i­cant, so she moved out.

“An­other lady in her 50s bought an in­vest­ment prop­erty to ren­o­vate. When she started pulling things down, she cre­ated dust laced with traces of meth. She be­came quite sick and had to move out. She’s still sick and it’s been sev­eral years since she moved.”

Cleaner Josh Marsden is push­ing for govern­ment to leg­is­late for manda­tory test­ing of all prop­er­ties for sale or rent by real es­tate agents.

“Con­sumers should know what they are buy­ing or rent­ing,” he says. “At the mo­ment, peo­ple are largely un­aware un­til it’s too late and there’s no clear-cut av­enue for re­spon­si­bil­ity and re­port­ing. We know how toxic meth is and how big the prob­lem is – in­no­cent peo­ple are get­ting sick be­cause they sim­ply don’t know they’re liv­ing in a for­mer meth lab.”

Worth­less and aban­doned

Clean­ing up a home that’s been used as a methaphetamine lab can cost any­thing from $25,000 to $100,000 and it is un­wit­ting own­ers and land­lords who are often left with the bill.

In New Zealand, the is­sue is be­ing hotly de­bated in par­lia­ment with some MPs calling for manda­tory test­ing of ev­ery home prior to pur­chase or lease.

Kiwi grand­mother Ker­ryanne Hop­kins is lead­ing the fight. She dis­cov­ered her home had been a meth lab when she be­gan ren­o­vat­ing. “There was crystal residue all over the bed­room walls, so I’d say the ad­dicts used to sit in bed and smoke meth,” she says.

She spent about 80 hours clean­ing the prop­erty, but tests still showed residue. She can’t sell the house and can’t af­ford to pay the $25,000 clean-up costs. She no longer lets vis­i­tors come to the house, in­clud­ing her grand­son, and is con­sid­er­ing walk­ing away from the prop­erty. “I will never buy a prop­erty again with­out do­ing a meth check on it.”

Twenty years ago, Dr Jackie Wright be­gan her ca­reer in en­vi­ron­men­tal sciences, study­ing con­tam­i­nated soil, pol­lu­tion and pes­ti­cides in food.

She never imag­ined she’d end up study­ing the im­pacts of meth.

Dur­ing the course of her re­search, which took five years, she spent time in jail in­ter­view­ing con­victed meth cooks and had a unique ex­cur­sion with the United States Drug En­force­ment Agency.

“We worked with de­tec­tives in Cal­i­for­nia in a sim­u­la­tor lab cook­ing up meth so we could un­der­stand the process, the chem­i­cals and how the vapour ex­tracts and dis­si­pates, and so we could learn about how it con­tam­i­nates,” she ex­plains. “It was sur­real, but eye open­ing. We only made a tiny quan­tity, but I still threw out all of my clothes and things af­ter­wards be­cause I was so wor­ried about go­ing through the air­port scan­ner.”

Dr Wright’s re­search will hope­fully form the ba­sis of na­tional guide­lines for iden­ti­fy­ing the public health risks of meth labs and the re­me­di­a­tion of prop­er­ties af­fected, but she says there’s still much we don’t know about the long-term ef­fects of the drug.

“Meth has a ma­jor im­pact on our com­mu­nity at dif­fer­ent lev­els,” she says. “We need to make this a pri­or­ity. Peo­ple are get­ting sick and they may not have any idea why.”

Clean­ing up a home that’s been used as a meth lab can cost any­thing from $25,000 to $100,000.

Busi­ness is boom­ing for Josh Marsden (be­low left) and the crew who have de­con­tam­i­nated 80 for­mer labs.

The clean­ers are shocked by the for­mer drug lab con­tam­i­na­tion lev­els. The labs (right) use toxic chem­i­cals such as ace­tone and drain cleaner.

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