house declared a crime sceneMyth Busters: Meth contamination

Australia may be in the grip of an ‘ice’ epidemic, but is the hysteria about meth contamination in rentals justified?

Few would argue there is an illicit drug problem across our nation. Meth use has tripled in the past five years, according to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. Police are regularly called out to violent outbursts from meth-affected users and burglaries to ‘feed’ the habit are rampant, while hospital Emergency Departments are the scenes of the drug-fuelled aftermath. But it’s not only on the streets that concern about ‘ice’ and meth (‘P’) is growing – it’s an issue that landlords and property managers are also having to face.

Recently there has been a lot of panicked chatter about meth contamination in rentals, but what are the facts behind the fear?

Claim: Any use (including smoking) of meth in a rental means the property is ‘contaminated’.
Myth: The fear that even trace levels of meth residue pose a risk is being allayed by research.

Across the Tasman, where the scourge of meth is at epidemic levels, a report by New Zealand’s Chief Science Adviser, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, has shed light on the risks.

Professor Gluckman said the risk of encountering methamphetamine on home surfaces at levels that might cause harm is “extremely low” and found no evidence that residue from home meth smoking would harm future residents.

“There’s absolutely no evidence in the medical literature anywhere in the world, of anybody being harmed by passive exposure to methamphetamine at any level,” said Sir Peter.

The Gluckman report states: “There are no published, or robust unpublished, data relating to health risks of residing in a dwelling formerly used only for smoking methamphetamine”.

The report also notes that exposures below 15 micrograms are highly unlikely to cause adverse effects. Levels of more than 30 micrograms are indicative of manufacturing activity.

“There is, theoretically a [health] risk if you got up to levels of 100mg or thereabouts, but that’s theoretical. You probably would need levels much higher, in the order of 1,000-10,000mg to have a risk,” Sir Peter told media when the report was released in May.

In four years, state housing authority Housing New Zealand (HNZ) spent over $100 million testing and decontaminating houses suspected of being meth contaminated. Many houses were demolished and several hundred homes were left vacant. However, research showed that of the 1,600 homes HNZ suspected were contaminated, only one per cent contained traces of 30 micrograms or more.

Testing is not warranted in most situations and remediation to the current standard [1.5 micrograms per 100cm2] is appropriate only in former meth labs and properties where “excessive methamphetamine use” is indicated, Gluckman noted.

The takeout is that unless the tenants or their guests are extremely heavy users of meth, the residue from smoking ‘ice’ is unlikely to be at a level that could potentially cause harm after they’ve gone.

Claim: Meth drug labs (clan labs) are the main source of contamination.
Truth: Manufacturing of meth poses a far greater threat to the safety of the home and the health of its occupants.

The process of ‘cooking’ ice and other meth-based drugs involves the use of dangerous chemicals including lithium metal, liquid ammonia, LPG, acetone, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda. This highly volatile combination of explosive and corrosive materials are key ingredients in the recipe – and can leave behind a highly toxic residue.

If a property is found to have been used as a meth lab, it will require specialist (forensic) cleaning.

Claim: Meth residue in a home can be a health hazard.
Truth: High levels of meth residue can pose health risks.

Chemical residue, left over from the manufacturing process, can seep into soft furnishings, carpets, timber floors and door frames, and even walls and ceilings. While you often can’t see the toxins, you may be made painfully aware of their presence – stinging eyes, nose and throat irritation, respiratory problems, rashes, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, fatigue, blurry vision and headache are common reactions. Children, adults and pets living in contaminated dwellings have been known to suffer ill-effects of exposure.

Claim: Rentals should be checked for meth contamination.
Depends: Meth contamination is usually invisible so testing is the only way to confirm or refute its presence. In recent times, there has been a lot of ‘scaremongering’ around meth contamination and the need for testing. In some cases, the flames have been fanned by testing companies tapping into property investor concerns about the risks. However, whether the home should be tested or not depends on whether there is reason to suspect the property has been used as a clan lab or the occupants were heavy meth smokers. If there is no cause to suspect either scenario, then there is little reason to carry out testing.

If a landlord or agent suspects the property is being used as a meth lab[1], the police should be notified immediately.

If a landlord or agent suspects that heavy crystal meth smoking has taken place at the property, it may be prudent to undertake testing. DIY test kits are available and if the preliminary test shows a positive result, further testing should be carried out by a government-approved service provider to confirm the level and type of contamination present.

The Australian Government (in its Clandestine Drug Laboratory Remediation Guidelines – 2011) has set the Health Investigation Level at 0.5µm (micrograms) per 100cm² for meth on residential surfaces. Higher levels do not guarantee a risk exists but indicates the need for further investigation or action, notes the Western Australian Department of Health’s Guidelines for Notification and Risk Management after Detection of a Clandestine Drug Laboratory.

Claim: Landlords and property managers can be held liable for tenant health problems.
Truth: Landlords have a legal obligation to provide a safe rental property. Property managers also have a duty of care to protect the health and safety of tenants.

Any lingering toxins present a liability risk and allowing a contaminated home to be occupied may breach the Residential Tenancies Act in their state/territory or contravene building, environmental and health legislation, leaving landlords and agents exposed to legal action and claims for compensation.

If a lab is identified, the agent may be protected by their Professional Indemnity insurance for any allegations of professional negligence. Agents should check their policy because they often contain a “pollution” exclusion clause.

Landlords also need to check if their Landlord Insurance provides specific coverage for the discovery of a meth lab.

Claim: Insurers won’t cover the cost of meth contamination clean-ups.
Myth: Policies vary so insurance coverage for the cost of meth contamination clean-up depends on the individual insurer and the specific policies they offer.

RentCover provides up to $65,000 to cover the cost of cleaning a drug-contaminated property if the damage is caused by tenants during the period of insurance, along with other costs incurred, such as loss of rent while the property is remediated.

[1] Signs that a property may be being used to ‘cook’ meth include (courtesy Auckland Regional Public Health Service):

  • unusual chemical smells that are not normally present in the area
  • numerous chemical containers (labelled solvent, acid, flammable) stored or stock piled
  • stained glass equipment and cookware
  • plastic or glass containers fitted with glass or rubber tubing
  • numerous cold tablet packages lying around or in the rubbish
  • portable gas tanks or other cylinders not normally seen or used in the area
  • chemical stains around household kitchen sink, laundry, toilet or stormwater drains
  • yellow/brown staining of interior floor, wall, ceiling and appliance surfaces.

Other signs include:

  • light bulbs being removed (to avoid the risk of a spark causing an explosion)
  • smoke detectors being disabled
  • false walls being erected
  • curtains always being drawn or windows blacked out.