Mold fill­ing homes where pot is grown

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Tom McGhee

David and Chris­tine Lynn paid $398,000 for a home in ru­ral Dou­glas County be­fore dis­cov­er­ing that the pre­vi­ous oc­cu­pants had di­verted an elec­tri­cal line to avoid pay­ing the high cost of power needed to turn the res­i­dence into a mar­i­juana grow house.

“They called the elec­tric com­pany and found out the wattage for that house had been huge for the pre­vi­ous two years,” said Rolf von Merveldt, a lawyer who is han­dling the law­suit they filed against the pre­vi­ous owner.

Things got worse from there. They found thou­sands of square feet of mold be­neath rugs and dry­wall in the base­ment, and a sub­se­quent in­spec­tion de­ter­mined that walls that had ab­sorbed the pun­gent smell of pot had been cov­ered with Kilz, a primer that can block odors.

Mold in some parts of the home cov­ered dry­wall from the floor to ceil­ing, suggest­ing that the mois­ture caus­ing it didn’t come from out­side the home, von Merveldt said.

No one re­ally knows how many homes through­out Colorado are be­ing used to grow weed, and not all of them suf­fer the

ex­ten­sive dam­age that the Lynns found. But law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties say they’re see­ing more and more houses that have been left with thou­sands of dol­lars in dam­age from mar­i­juana grow op­er­a­tions.

Den­ver po­lice De­tec­tive Brian Matos es­ti­mates that mar­i­juana is grown in one of every 10 homes in the city — “ev­ery­where from one plant to 1,000 plants.”

Colorado law bars grow­ing mar­i­juana out­doors, so even those grow­ing a small num­ber of plants legally must do so in­side.

Gangs that grow weed il­le­gally in Colorado, then sell it out­side the state, grow the prod­uct in com­mer­cial ware­houses, but they also use pri­vate and, fre­quently, ex­pen­sive prop­er­ties in up­per-mid­dle-class, high-in­come neigh­bor­hoods, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral Drug En­force­ment Agency.

Of­ten the plants are tended by peo­ple who have lit­tle or no ex­pe­ri­ence in hor­ti­cul­ture and don’t re­al­ize the dam­age that wa­ter and hu­mid­ity can do to a home.

Some grow­ers know what they’re do­ing and just don’t care. They take an ir­re­spon­si­ble ap­proach to cul­ti­va­tion, punch­ing holes in walls and ceil­ings to pro­vide ven­ti­la­tion, jer­ry­build­ing elec­tri­cal wiring, re­mov­ing walls, and rerout­ing wa­ter lines.

“We see mold is­sues, fire hazards. You need more power, so they try to set up their own elec­tri­cal sys- tems,” Matos said. “Break­ers are pop­ping, trans­form­ers are blow­ing out, power cords are sit­ting in stand­ing wa­ter. They try to do this in their base­ment. How many peo­ple try to grow toma­toes in their base­ment?”

Matos said home meth labs, once fairly com­mon in the state, have been put out of busi­ness by cheaper metham­phetamine that flows across the bor­der from Mex­ico.

But re­me­di­a­tion of dam­age from meth is of­ten cheaper than the cost of re­pairs needed to a home where pot is grown, said Ti­mothy Gable­house, a lawyer who han­dles en­vi­ron­men­tal con­tam­i­na­tion cases.

Since labs are smaller now, con­tam­i­na­tion from meth is usu­ally con­fined to small ar­eas of the home where it was smoked, Gable­house said.

The big­gest en­vi­ron­men­tal dan­ger in homes where weed is grown is mold caused by the amount of hu­mid­ity grow­ers in­ject into the home. Peo­ple with asthma and other re­s­pi­ra­tory prob­lems can be se­verely af­fected by mold.

In 2012, a re­search team from Na­tional Jewish Health work­ing with law en­force­ment en­tered 30 il­le­gal grow op­er­a­tions and eval­u­ated them for po­ten­tial hazards in­clud­ing mold, pes­ti­cides and fer­til­iz­ers.

The study con­cluded that “air­borne lev­els of mold spores that we found in­side th­ese struc­tures may sub­ject the oc­cu­pants, emer­gency per­son­nel and other in­di­vid­u­als to sig­nif­i­cant health hazards, es­pe­cially al­ler­gies, asthma, hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity pneu­moni­tis and other re­s­pi­ra­tory diseases.”

Each il­le­gal grow con­tained any­where from 11 to 670 plants.

“Be­cause grow op­er­a­tions are of­ten con­cealed in res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties to evade law en­force­ment and/or thieves, they are not de­signed for ex­ten­sive green­house-type op­er­a­tions, es­pe­cially lack­ing in ven­ti­la­tion and proper elec­tri­cal wiring,” Na­tional Jewish said.

“If the mold has grown into the floor joists, it can do enough dam­age to the wood that the house can’t be saved,” Gable­house said.

But he has seen few homes that badly dam­aged.

Il­le­gal grow­ers also some­times dig into the foun­da­tion to tap a power line be­fore the line can reach the me­ter to en­sure they don’t have to pay for the elec­tric­ity they are us­ing, or to evade law en­force­ment. “They cap the power line, and how they do it with­out get­ting elec­tro­cuted has al­ways been a mys­tery to me,” Gable­house said.

But mold smells, and the smell of weed clings to a home’s in­te­rior. A prospec­tive buyer can of­ten see the dam­age caused by a grower.

“Mold is a huge cleanup prob­lem, but most peo­ple can fig­ure out there is some­thing wrong fast,” Gable­house said. “They can smell it.”

Judy Saw­it­sky, of Weecy­cle En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­sult­ing, doesn’t be­lieve there are that many homes dra­mat­i­cally af­fected by mar­i­juana grows.

“I think it is a prob­lem, but I per­son­ally haven’t seen a large in­flux of test­ing for grow houses,” Saw­it­sky said. “If I was to com­pare them, I would have nine meth houses and one grow house that some­one would want us to test.”

Colorado re­quires sell­ers to dis­close if a home has been con­tam­i­nated by meth, un­less it has been cleaned up.

State reg­u­la­tors should also re­quire that sell­ers dis­close when mar­i­juana has been grown in a home, von Merveldt said.

“I think the real es­tate com­mis­sion has re­ally dodged the is­sue,” he said.

Colorado’s Bro­kers Re­la­tion­ship Act re­quires real es­tate bro­kers to dis­close known ad­verse ma­te­rial facts about a home, in­clud­ing mold and other prob­lems that can re­sult from grow­ing pot, said Mar­cia Wa­ters, di­rec­tor of the Di­vi­sion of Real Es­tate.

A home where only a few plants were grown is un­likely to have se­ri­ous prob­lems, she said.

Af­ter recre­ational mar­i­juana be­came le­gal in 2014, Wa­ters said, some bro­kers be­lieved they wouldn’t have to dis­close that mar­i­juana had been grown.

As a re­sult, in 2015, the com­mis­sion is­sued a po­si­tion state­ment re­it­er­at­ing dis­clo­sure rules for ad­verse ma­te­rial facts. The poisi­ton doesn’t men­tion mar­i­juana.

“We de­cided that rather than do one on mar­i­juana, we would do one on the broader is­sue,” Wa­ters said.

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