Methamphetamine, also known as ice, ‘P’, or crystal meth, has become a major issue for the housing industry in New Zealand and many states of the USA. It’s growing in use throughout Australia due to the ease with which it can be manufactured and the profits to be made from its sale. Martin La Touche of Narcotect describes how the increasing use of meth is affecting the housing rental and sales industry in Australia, and how you might be able to spot a drug lab.
Australia may not be fully gripped by the ‘meth epidemic’ yet, but it’s already happening in several suburbs with the police busting labs every week. However, even the police admit that they realistically only discover one in 10 labs, which means that for the 750 labs closed down in 2015, 7,500 may have gone undiscovered. Were any of these operating at one of your clients’ properties?
WHAT IS METHAMPHETAMINE AND WHY IS IT SO DANGEROUS?
Unlike most other illicit drugs, meth is 100 per cent man-made and is created by using a number of highly toxic chemicals to alter the molecular structure of the base ingredient. This process, known as cooking, generates solid, liquid and gaseous waste which contaminates any surface with which it comes into contact.
For every kilo of finished product there are 10 kilos of waste which, due to the generally unscrupulous nature of the industry, most cooks will dispose of in less than ideal ways – often down the nearest sink or toilet, or just tipped out in the back garden.
In addition to solid and liquid waste, it is the poisonous fumes produced by cooking or smoking meth that will go on to cause the most issues far into the future.
A common method used by smokers is for a group of them to cram into a small room so that they can share the fumes. Known as ‘hot-boxing’, this method ensures that the room will become highly contaminated.
And when this occupant leaves the house and a new family moves in, who usually occupies the smallest rooms? Children and babies.
In addition to the contamination from fumes, there is also the danger to young children from chemicals that may have been spilt on carpets, since children tend to spend more time at floor level. Basic cleaning will not remove these toxins.
WHAT’S INVOLVED IN CLEANING A CONTAMINATED PROPERTY, AND HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Even after a clean, unless performed by trained professionals, there may still be dangerous levels of contamination present. These toxic chemicals can continue to leach out of surfaces for many years.
Remediation costs vary depending on the level of contamination.
For low-level contamination, pre-testing and clean-up may end up cost costing $3,000 to $5,000, including a re-test on completion to ensure that the property has a clean bill of health.
For medium to high-level contamination, it may be necessary to remove and replace all floor coverings, wall and ceiling linings, appliances, and fittings such as toilets and sinks. Depending on the value of the property the cost could range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the worst case scenarios, the entire building may have to be demolished and rebuilt.
If you purchase a contaminated property, you then own the problem. If your tenants are cooking or using meth in your property, you own the problem.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF METH USE OR CONTAMINATION?
There are a number of signs that meth has been cooked in a house. These are the obvious indicators such as blacked-out windows, chemical containers lying around, dodgy electrical work or strong chemical smells.
However, more commonly, there will be no obvious signs at all.
Meth labs are relatively compact and simple to set up and take down. It doesn’t require much effort for an occupant to assemble their lab in the kitchen, spare bedroom or garage and cook up a batch over the weekend.
They can then disassemble the equipment and pack it away. A quick wipe down, and an unwary property manager or agent would be none the wiser.
There have been a number of cases where landlords, on discovering that their property has been used as a meth house, have carried out a quick renovation and re-paint to cover any signs of contamination and put it on the market.
Paint and wallpaper will not stop the toxic chemicals leaching out over time. Unless the surfaces are cleaned fully, the toxins will continue to be a major health hazard for any occupant for many years to come.
HOW DO I DETERMINE WHETHER THERE IS CONTAMINATION PRESENT?
There are several ways a property can be tested for the presence of meth.
The most common way, until recently, was to have a professional testing company take various samples from areas most likely to be contaminated. These samples would be sent to a lab and analysed for the presence of drug residue to determine at what level the contamination is.
Although highly accurate, this form of testing is expensive and time-consuming, as each sample is taken from a relatively small area, a 10x10cm square. In addition, tests need to be carried out by a trained technician.
Newer test methods, using chemically treated swabs, are more cost-effective and can be used by an untrained person to produce a result from within a few seconds to several minutes, depending on the type.
HOW DO I PROTECT MY PROPERTIES AND MY CLIENTS?
The meth problem has reached epidemic proportions in New Zealand and is steadily growing in Australia.
In recent testing of houses in a New Zealand State House complex, a quarter were found to have evidence of meth contamination. Housing NZ is currently spending $12 to $13 million a year on remediation.
Many landlords, including the New Zealand social housing agency, are now including clauses in their tenancy agreements stating that regular testing will be carried out.
The use of meth is not limited to any particular socio-economic group. Users are living in the poorest areas to the most expensive areas. This includes top-end rental properties as well.
Using the New Zealand situation as an example, testing rental properties for meth contamination is likely to become normal practice for a property manager carrying out inspections, and property owners will request that this be done to protect their investment.
WHAT IF A TEST INDICATES POSITIVE FOR CONTAMINATION?
The first thing to consider is your own personal safety. Even small amounts of the chemicals can cause health issues, including headaches, nausea and dizziness, after short-term contact.
Use medical-grade rubber gloves when taking samples and ensure these, and any test products, are disposed of safely.
If a test indicates a positive result, the immediate course of action is to leave the premises. If there are occupants of the house, they should also consider leaving, especially if there are small children or people with existing health issues.
From here on, the distinction between who should be notified and who has to be informed becomes a little blurry.
Firstly, and most importantly, a quick test kit should not be relied upon as a conclusive test for meth and other drug contamination. They are only a presumptive indicator. Therefore, further testing will be required.
If contamination is suspected, a specialist testing company should be engaged to carry out lab-quality testing to determine that the samples are actually meth and what levels are present.
The disclosure requirements for an agent and owner are clear in that full disclosure must be made to prospective tenants or purchasers if an agent is aware of the house’s history. An independent test company’s final sign-off would be helpful if the place has been cleaned.
Meth is a growing issue throughout Australia. Its use is not restricted to any one socio-economic group or suburb. The chemicals used to manufacture it and produced when using it are highly dangerous to people and pets who come in contact with its residue. And once contamination has occurred, it is extremely costly to remedy the problem.
Anyone with an interest in ensuring that a property is and remains contamination-free, including property managers, agents, landlords and future tenants, should make themselves aware of how to spot the tell-tale signs and what methods can be used to test a property before becoming yet another victim of this dangerous drug.