Part Four: Meth -- A deadly epidemic: Toxic pollution lingers long after meth lab is gone
|Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review|
Bob Webb, left, and Mitch Kelly, both of MGEC, a Spokane cleanup company, haul contaminated carpet from a Deer Park home where a methamphetamine lab was found.
- Staff writer
Jon and Kristie Breckon thought it was a screaming deal: newly remodeled two-bedroom house, oversized lot, tranquil Spirit Lake, Idaho, $69,000.
One question the first-time home buyers asked was a strange one, prompted by a concern from Kristie's mom: Has this been a methamphetamine lab?
They were assured it had not been, by the Realtor and local police.
But a week after moving in, a neighbor told them a previous resident had used meth, and possibly manufactured the dangerous drug.
"I about fell over," said Kristie Breckon, 25.
A test quickly confirmed the couple's fears: red stains on their pine kitchen cabinets held residue from meth-making chemicals.
The Breckons are far from alone. The exploding popularity of meth endangers renters, home buyers, neighbors and unwitting bystanders.
As more amateur chemists cook up the highly addictive drug, uncleaned labs littered with toxic chemical waste and used hypodermic needles are polluting a rising number of Inland Northwest neighborhoods.
A whiff of meth residue can sear lungs, cause eyes to water, bring on headaches. Living in an uncleaned meth lab can cause chronic health problems, and perhaps cancer.
Washington regulates cleanup of these labs, but no agency in Idaho even monitors the problem, or insists upon cleanup. Idaho health officials were no help to the Breckons; one simply suggested they move.
From January 1998 to April 2000, 107 labs were busted in Spokane County and its surrounding four counties; 170 were discovered in the same period in the five-county Idaho Panhandle.
For landlords or owners of those homes, cleaning a lab can be ruinously expensive -- $10,000 or more -- and few insurance companies pay for it.
For renters and home buyers, there is scant assurance that landlords and sellers paid the tab to clean up the house to safe standards.
For taxpayers, the bill continues to mount. It costs about $1,500 to do an initial cleanup of each lab, paid out of a federal fund that is now depleted.
Congress is considering a special bill to replenish the nationwide cleanup fund. Until then, Washington legislators recently put $749,000 in an emergency fund to hire more staff to monitor cleanups. Idaho's state police found $100,000.
And for a handful of local companies who specialize in meth lab cleanup, the epidemic means big business.
IN IDAHO, NO CLEANUP REQUIRED Following the SWAT team at each bust is a team of health workers in moon suits and respirators. They're on site to remove chemical drums and cooking containers and tools. The government picks up the tab.
What they're cleaning often looks like a demented school boy's chemistry set -- with hoses snaking among Mason jars filled with chemicals, matchbooks soaking in solution, a hot plate plugged in.
Scenes from the initial cleanups are startling images now associated with meth labs, but these efforts are only cursory. Often left behind are homes soaked in toxic chemicals and strewn with needles used by addicts to shoot up.
Once bulk waste items are cleared, Washington and Idaho public health officials slap a warning notice on the front door and tell landlords of their options for further cleanup with one of five licensed contractors in the region.
It's here that stark differences between Washington and Idaho emerge.
Laws in the Evergreen State set safe standards for exposure -- less than five micrograms of meth-making chemicals per square foot -- and require cleanup.
Public health officials have leverage to force reluctant owners to clean up by threatening condemnation of property; currently there is just one uncleaned meth lab in Spokane County.
But Idaho leaves cleanup to the landlord's discretion, and sets no threshold for safe exposure. If the landlord chooses not to spend thousands of dollars for cleanup, there is no law requiring action.
As a result, private cleanup firms estimate that nine out of 10 North Idaho homes where busts took place haven't been sufficiently cleaned to ensure occupants' safety.
An accurate figure is not available because Idaho health officials, unlike their Washington counterparts, do not keep track. Nor do they know how many unsuspecting people might be living in the contaminated homes.
"All we can do is say, `We strongly recommend' you clean it up," said a frustrated Rob Eachon, indoor air quality inspector for Panhandle Health District. "There's no follow-up at all, and the landlord is not required to do anything. We know what needs to be done, and we can't do it."
After finding Idaho officials unhelpful, the Breckons called Washington health inspectors to learn that residue in their house fell below toxic levels. But they now monitor their health more closely, and rinse dishes from the cabinets before eating.
They plan to stay, but wish they'd had the home tested before closing. "All houses on the market have to be tested for radon. Why not meth?" Kristie Breckon said.
IT ALL MUST GO A home heavily contaminated by a lab must be nearly gutted, say health inspectors and cleanup workers. The job can take days; in some cases, it's cheaper to tear down the home than to clean it.
Toxic fumes from meth production permeates carpets, drapes, furniture, ceilings, even drywall. All of it must go.
And many meth cooks are sloppy, resulting in chemical spills. Contaminated wood must be scrubbed and sealed; it's often easier to simply replace it.
A team wearing protective gear pressure-washes and scrubs walls with industrial-grade cleaners. Contaminated water is vacuumed. More tests are run; if hot spots are still hot, the process is repeated. And repeated.
Idaho health officials find some landlords choose to just hire maids and slap on fresh paint.
"In Idaho, it's really up to the landlord, how much he wants to do," said Kipp Silver, president of Able Clean-up Tech of Spokane. His company voluntarily adopts Washington standards when it cleans Idaho meth labs.
Failure to professionally clean and test the site could harm future residents, said Kip McGillivray of SI McStay of Kellogg, which contracts with Idaho for initial cleanups.
"The smallest cook you can imagine will contaminate the house," he said. "By no means would it be a clean site if you cleaned it up yourself."
"We're really concerned about children that might wander into an uncleaned site and start playing, or that they could get burned by the acids," said Lew Kittle, a Washington health official overseeing meth lab cleanups. "This is a serious public health issue."
Bob Webb, president of MGEC, a Spokane cleanup company, said he keeps an eye out for booby traps left behind in meth houses by paranoid users -- electrified door knobs, fish hooks in the bushes and refrigerators rigged to explode.
A typical meth house, Webb said, is small and filthy. Garbage is strewn about. Remnants of the meth cooking operation pollute the interior. Stereos, copy machines and computers are torn apart, tinker toys of meth users when they are high, he said.
LOOKING TO THE LEGISLATURE Not surprisingly, calls are now coming in to Eachon and to Coeur d'Alene lawyers' offices from sick tenants who suspect they have unwittingly rented former meth labs in Idaho.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has been trying to find such cases, but hasn't gotten the word out to emergency rooms and regional health districts.
"If you take a 1-year-old crawling around and exposed to one-tenth or one-hundredth of the industrial health standard, we don't really know what the effect is going to be," said Russell Duke, the chief environmental health and safety officer with Health and Welfare.
Attempts to get the Idaho Legislature to pass stiffer enforcement laws failed in 1999. Mike Gregory, the Department of Environmental Quality's head environmental health officer, said the Legislature's strong property rights stance had something to do with the hesitation.
"If they find out people are getting contaminated, or potentially contaminated, maybe we'll get some laws written up," he said.
The state also lacks landlord-tenant laws that require disclosure of meth activity, although tenants may sue landlords for renting a hazardous property, said Alan Wasserman, an attorney for Idaho Legal Aid Services.
There is little protection for buyers such as the Breckons. The Idaho seller's disclosure report doesn't include drug manufacturing, as the Washington version does.
Realtors have an ethical responsibility to pass on warnings of health hazards to buyers, said Carrie Oja, executive director of the Coeur d'Alene Association of Realtors.
'THIS HAS RUINED US' Being a responsible landlord can be expensive. For Richard and Marie Smith of Spokane, it's been disastrous.
Renters used the Smiths' Newport house as a meth lab in 1998. As a SWAT team crashed through the door, the renters poured gallons of chemicals down the toilet.
After the bust, the Smiths discovered $26,750 worth of damage. Carpet, ceiling tiles and drywall were soaked with chemical fumes. Pipes were gnawed through by acids. Bullet holes in the floor. A rotting 4-foot patch of kitchen floor.
The couple tried to get their insurance carrier, State Farm, to pay for some cleanup costs, but were denied under a clause in their policy that excludes "contamination" from coverage. The only help they got was a $471 damage claim from the Spokane Housing Authority, which subsidized the tenants' rent.
The Smiths got a $26,750 judgment against their former renters, but the couple has been unable to collect.
Other landlords say denials by insurers are routine, and the Washington State Insurance Commissioner is logging a rising number of complaints.
Insurers denying claims under a contamination waiver do so legally, said Jim Stevenson, spokesman for the commissioner.
"Landlords should take out that homeowner (insurance) contract and look carefully," he said. But he expects the Washington Legislature to address the issue next year.
"I think most of us sense something very unfair here," he said.
The Smiths have paid about $10,000 so far, including about $5,000 to a Spokane cleanup company to power wash chemical hot spots with a special treatment. The couple skipped Christmas to scrape together the money.
The company, Roar Tech, was so backed up with other meth jobs that it didn't get to the Smiths' home for nearly a year.
It's now been another year, and the house still sits unrented. Richard Smith, who is doing some work himself to save money, says he's sick from an infection related to his asthma, too sick to hold a regular job.
He wonders if the infection and his work on the house are related. His wife, Marie, has little doubt.
"This has ruined us," she said.
AT A GLANCE Spotting a lab
Warning signs that a meth lab may be in your neighborhood:
Strong or unusual odors similar to cat urine or fingernail polish
Dumps of empty paint thinner or acetone containers or ephedrine bottles
Red-stained coffee filters
Big chemical drums
Unusual amounts of clear glass containers taken to a house
Window shades drawn or windows blacked out
Unusual foot or auto traffic
Warning signs that your house may have been used as a meth lab:
Brass and stainless steel fixtures corroded to a green color
Orange/red stains on floors, linoleum or wood
Unusual chemical odors
Large accumulations of trash inside or outside
SOURCE: Washington Lt. Governor's office and law enforcement agencies
AT A GLANCE Cooking up trouble
Meth manufacturers use a variety of recipes to "cook" the drug. The cooks, usually amateur chemists, create a pure stimulant derived from ephedrine, an ingredient found in most over-the-counter cold medicines.
Meth cooks use chemicals to pull pure ephedrine from the pills through cold or hot methods.
They set up their labs in kitchens, cardboard boxes and remote outdoor locations. They use hot plates, mason jars and tubing.
Almost all ingredients can be found in a hardware store or pharmacy.
muriatic acid, used to dissolve concrete
acetone, a solvent
red phosphorus, from match book covers and flares.
iodine crystals, used in medical or veterinary clinics.
anhydrous ammonia, used as fertilizer
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