Buyer Beware of Toxic Meth-Lab Homes
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
Health officials in a handful of states are warning home-buyers and renters to check an online database of busted "meth houses" to make sure they don't move into a contaminated former drug lab.
Idaho is the latest state to start listing properties where methamphetamine drug labs have been found in an online database for potential buyers and renters. Seven homes have been listed since the database was launched in April, and similar online registries in neighboring Alaska, Michigan, Montana, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington list hundreds of homes, motel rooms and even automobiles that have been used to cook methamphetamine in recent years.
"We're trying to protect families and children by allowing the public to look on our Web site before they rent or buy a house to see if it's ever been busted as a meth house," said Kara Stevens, manager of Idaho's Environmental Health and Injury Prevention Program, which administers the state's Clandestine Drug Lab Cleanup Program.
Along with bulging prison populations and a marked increase in drug-rehabilitation and child-welfare services caused by the nation's meth problem, states have struggled with the cleanup costs and health hazards of former meth labs. Thousands of clandestine drug laboratories, largely mom-and-pop operations in private dwellings, have been set up all over the country to cook the highly addictive drug, also known as crystal meth, ice, glass and crank.
Known for its high rate of addiction and severe side effects, which include rotten teeth and increased risk of heart, lung and liver disease, meth easily can be made with over-the-counter cold medication, household chemicals and a hot plate or burner. Every pound of meth cooked results in up to five to seven pounds of toxic chemical wastes that pose serious health and environmental hazards, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
States have taken a lead roll in combating domestic meth production. Forty-two states have imposed restrictions on sales of cold medication containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth ingredient, and Congress imposed similar restrictions nationwide that went into effect Oct. 1. A handful of states, including Illinois, Montana and Tennessee, also have begun listing convicted meth makers on Internet databases, similar to registries that list sexual predators.
The DEA reported seizures of 16,813 methamphetamine laboratories in 2005, up from 9,747 in 2004. There are no federal regulations for cleaning up meth labs, and unknown numbers of families unwittingly move into houses where meth was concocted, state health officials said.
Scientifically, there are no studies yet proving a link between living in a former meth lab and specific health problems. But the cooking process releases a cloud of toxic chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, phosphorous, iodine and methamphetamine itself, that seeps into floors and walls and can potentially cause long-term health problems, said Shawn Arbuckle, an industrial hygiene program coordinator at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, which has conducted several studies on the impact of meth labs.
Potential health problems range from headaches and blisters to damaged lungs, liver and kidneys. Children are especially sensitive to chemical exposure, which can damage their developing brains, Arbuckle said.
"You know that youngsters still crawling around on hands and knees put everything in their mouth, so they're especially at risk of picking up methamphetamine residues," he said.
It's illegal in 12 states (Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington) for anyone to live in a former meth house before it's been decontaminated, according to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, a congressionally funded nonprofit that helps states set drug laws.
But in most other states, there are few protections to warn home-buyers or renters whether they're moving into a former meth house. Only 14 states (Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Washington) require property owners to disclose former drug production to potential buyers or tenants. And only 13 states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah and Washington) have established guidelines for cleaning up former meth labs.
Colorado was the first state to do toxicology studies attempting to measure contamination caused by meth production and to determine how much cleaning is required to make a home safe to live in. The state estimates cleanup costs of $15,000 to $30,000 to decontaminate a 2,000-square-foot house.