New Home Worry: Was It Once Used as a Methamphetamine Lab

The New York Times
WINCHESTER, Tenn. — The spacious home where the newly wed Rhonda and Jason Holt began their family in 2005 was plagued by mysterious illnesses. The Holts’ three babies were ghostlike and listless, with breathing problems that called for respirators, repeated trips to the emergency room and, for the middle child, Anna, the heaviest dose of steroids a toddler can take.

Holt, a nurse, developed migraines. She and her husband, a factory worker, had kidney ailments. It was not until February, more than five years after they moved in, that the couple discovered the root of their troubles: Their house, across the road from a cornfield in this town some 70 miles south of Nashville, was contaminated with high levels of methamphetamine left by the previous occupant, who had been dragged from the attic by the police.

The Holts’ next realization was almost as devastating: It was up to them to spend the $30,000 or more that cleanup would require. With meth lab seizures on the rise nationally for the first time since 2003, similar cases are playing out in several states, drawing attention to the problem of meth contamination, which can permeate drywall, carpets, insulation and air ducts, causing respiratory ailments and other health problems.

Federal data on meth lab seizures suggest that there are tens of thousands of contaminated residences in the United States. The victims include low-income elderly people whose homes are surreptitiously used by relatives or in-laws to make meth, and landlords whose tenants leave them with a toxic mess.

Some states have tried to fix the problem by requiring cleanup and, at the time of sale, disclosure of the house’s history. But the high cost of cleaning — $5,000 to $100,000, depending on the size of the home, the stringency of the requirements and the degree of contamination — has left hundreds of properties vacant and quarantined, particularly in Western and Southern states afflicted with meth use.

“The meth lab home problem is only going to grow,” said Dawn Turner, who started a Web site,, after her son lost thousands of dollars when he bought a foreclosed home in Sweetwater, Tenn., that turned out to be contaminated. Because less is known about the history of foreclosed houses, Turner said, “as foreclosures rise, so will the number of new meth lab home owners.”

Federal statistics show that the number of clandestine meth labs discovered in the United States rose 14 percent last year, to 6,783, and has continued to increase, in part because of a crackdown on meth manufacturers in Mexico and in part because of the spread of a new, easier meth-making method known as “shake and bake. There are no national standards governing meth contamination. Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to publish cleanup guidelines by the end of 2008, but the agency is still reviewing a draft version.

About 20 states have passed laws requiring meth contamination cleanup, and they use widely varied standards. Virtually all the laws hold the property owner financially responsible.

Methamphetamine Labs can Contaminate a House

The passage of the pseudoephedrine bill in 2006 reduced the number of methamphetamine labs in Marshall County dramatically. But the numbers are increasing again as methamphetamine cooks learn new ways of obtaining the base ingredient for manufacturing meth. The problem has not just gone away.

The newest method of manufacture is called “shake and bake” a one-pot method. A two liter soda bottle is used to contain the reaction. No external heat source is required because the lithium used ignites spontaneously when in contact with water. As long as there is no oxygen in the system, the combustion is controlled. But when gasses build up, the soda bottle has to be “burped” to release the pressure. If enough oxygen enters the bottle during “burping,” the system explodes.

Manufacture is often conducted in moving vehicles to diffuse the odors. The bottles are then discarded after the process is complete, generally dumped along the roadway. The process yields a small amount of methamphetamine, and a large amount of toxic waste that is caustic, combustible, and poisonous.

Methamphetamine can be manufactured in homes, apartments, motels, self-storage facilities, barns, campers, outdoors in the woods or on the lake. Cooks are no longer confined to locations that have electricity or gas. A home that has been used as a methamphetamine lab is expensive to repair. Generally the ventilation system is contaminated, as are the walls, carpeting, cabinets and appliances. Sometimes the contamination is so severe the house must be condemned.

The chemicals involved are caustic, corrosive, and carcinogenic. Exposure causes airway irritation, eye and skin burning, nausea, headaches, and dizziness. Long term exposure has been linked to liver and kidney cancer. Methamphetamine itself persists in the ventilation system and carpeting and drapes of a home, resulting in levels that are toxic to humans for days after even a single cook.

Children are especially sensitive to methamphetamine in the environment, suffering rapid heart rate, insomnia, agitation and irritability from absorption of the methamphetamine in the air and on the floor. Even a home where methamphetamine has not been manufactured, but has just been smoked in, is potentially contaminated with methamphetamine.

There are ways to determine whether a house has been used as a methamphetamine lab in the past. Prior to purchasing any house, a background check should be done on it to see if law enforcement has ever identified a meth lab at the home. There is also a simple test of the ventilation system that can detect microscopic residue of methamphetamine. A swab can be used to swipe the air intake of the home and test it for methamphetamine residue.