Jaimee Alkinani and her husband had just bought their first home in a quiet suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah. The three-bedroom house was in a nice neighborhood: tree-lined street, kids riding their bikes down the sidewalk, and friendly neighbors who waved when they passed. The family was on their way — they'd also just opened a small business near their home, had an 11-month-old child, and Jaimee was eight months pregnant. Life had officially started for the Alkinanis. But soon things turned for the worse.
A few days after they had moved in, a neighbor welcomed them with disturbing news. "Your house used to be a meth lab," he said—a fact that the seller had never disclosed. So they called their realtor. He told them not to worry, that the house had been decontaminated. He even produced a certificate from the local health department to prove it.
Then the family started getting sick. Within five months, Jaimee and her husband developed sinus problems that required surgery. When their baby was born, he had serious lung issues that caused him to stop breathing a few times. He also wasn’t gaining weight, and was in and out of the hospital.
So the Alkinanis had their house tested for methamphetamine. The results made Jaimee put her kids in the car and immediately abandon her new home, with all the family’s possessions still inside. The house’s level of methamphetamine contamination was 63 times higher than the level at which the Utah Department of Health condemns a house.
Houses formerly used as meth labs, called meth houses, put their residents at risk of serious health consequences, says Stan Smith, a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Drug Endangered Children Task Force, a division of the California Drug Enforcement Agency.
Upon moving into a meth house, people have experienced short-term health problems ranging from migraines and respiratory difficulties to skin irritation and burns. Long-term problems are less well known, but the results from a 2009 study in Toxicological Sciences suggest that methamphetamine chemicals may cause cancer in humans. And because children have small, developing bodies and a tendency to play on the ground and put things in their mouths, they are especially susceptible to adverse health effects from meth toxins. "When we go into a lab, if there are children, the first thing we do is take the children to the hospital and assess them for contamination," Smith says.
The chemicals used in methamphetamine production are highly toxic and range from pseudoephedrine—the main ingredient in meth and the active ingredient in decongestants—to any one of 32 other precursor chemicals. These include acetone, the active ingredient in nail polish remover, and phosphine, a widely used insecticide.
Home-cooking meth spreads toxins to every inch of the room where the meth was cooked and beyond. Nothing escapes contamination—the carpet, walls, furniture, drapes, air ducts, and even the air itself becomes toxic. "Ingesting some of these chemicals, even a tiny drop, can cause immediate death," Smith says.
"When we go into a meth lab, we have on respirators, Tyvec suits, shoe coverings, gloves and eye goggles," says Sgt. Cory Craig, a state highway patrolman and narcotics specialist based in northern Missouri. Police treat methamphetamine labs as hazardous waste sites. They remove meth-making hardware and chemicals, and often hire professional cleaning companies to sanitize the house.
The sheer amount of chemicals removed from labs is staggering. Consider Missouri alone. "Since 1998 we've seized 12,354 meth labs, 251,000 pounds of solid waste, and 118,000 pounds of toxic waste," Craig says.
In dealing with toxic chemicals, most meth lab clean-up crews follow general guidelines. In the room where the meth was made, they scrub all surfaces, repaint the walls, replace the carpets and air filters, and air out the property. However, there are no national standards for meth lab cleanups—regulations differ from state to state. And in some states, getting a license to decontaminate a house is as easy as taking a few hours of class and a written test. "There are some bad certification methods out there. You could be a pizza delivery guy, study for a month, pay $250 and be certified," said Joe Mazzuca, a methamphetamine contamination expert and CEO of Meth Lab Cleanup, a nationwide meth-lab-specific cleanup company based in Boise, Idaho. In the Alkinanis’ case, the person who decontaminated their house shirked his responsibility by cleaning too quickly and not using the correct cleaning agents.
And although some states, such as Colorado, Washington and North Carolina, employ effective regulations, some experts think that many may not. In Idaho, for example, a former lab is deemed "clean" when there is less than one tenth of a microgram of methamphetamine per square centimeter in the room where the drug was cooked. If the amount of meth detected is at such a low level, some state regulators think, the precursor chemicals are at low levels too. "We just check for meth," says Jim Faust of Idaho's statewide Clandestine Drug Lab Cleanup Program, based in Boise.
Like Idaho, many states only check for meth in the room where the drug was cooked. This method doesn't account for toxic dust or harmful chemicals that may have traveled to other parts of the house. Another compounding factor is that many states do not require that the person cleaning be professionally trained or licensed in methamphetamine or hazardous waste cleanup.
Of all the toxic chemicals in a meth house, the drug itself is probably the hardest to clean up, but it's actually the least toxic. The precursor chemicals pose the greatest health risk to residents of a former meth lab. When people smoke or shoot meth they face serious health risks, but they usually don't die—they just get high. Many of meth's toxic precursors, if smoked or injected, are lethal.
Even if a meth house is cleaned properly, some contamination experts worry that the toxins may hang around. Glenn Morrison, an engineering professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, questions the adequacy of current meth house cleanup standards, emphasizing their failure to ensure the removal of toxins that are absorbed by the home. "These clean-ups tend to be somewhat superficial when it comes to permanent building materials," he says.
Morrison recently received funding from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to investigate exactly how methamphetamine contamination resides in buildings. He hopes to figure out whether current meth lab cleanup protocols properly address contamination. "Building materials absorb pollutants, even if the materials are not obviously porous or fleecy. This contamination can be re-released, even after the building has been cleaned," Morrison says.
Professional meth house cleanup contractors estimate that about 90 percent of meth houses are never uncovered, and their tenants will likely never know about their homes’ toxicity. Many of the meth houses that are discovered are listed on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) National Clandestine Laboratory Register or on other state databases.
The DEA's registry lists 113,464 meth labs that were uncovered from 1999 to 2008. But this figure doesn't account for any undiscovered meth labs and many meth experts think it's an underestimate. "The record keeping is horrific. The DEA's list can’t be relied upon because it's completely voluntary,” says Dawn Turner, who started methlabhomes.com, a free, web-based resource for people who have unknowingly purchased a meth house. "I've heard estimates that there are a million to a million and a half meth homes and most of them are never found by the police department," she adds. In the area where the Alkinanis lived, there were 250 known meth houses and most of their owners had no clue about their homes' nefarious past. The exact number of meth houses in U.S. is still unknown.
And although meth houses are more concentrated in certain states—Missouri is the meth capitol of the world, with 1,471 labs discovered in 2008 alone—there are meth houses in all fifty states. Consider a lab found in Framingham, Mass., a town with an average home price of around $350,000. Or one found in Norwalk, Conn., where the average home is valued at $694,000. "There is a misconception that these houses are crack houses. They are absolutely not. A meth house in Kentucky recently went on the market for $700,000 dollars," Turner says.
With so many homes potentially contaminated by methamphetamine production, Turner estimates that thousands to tens of thousands of people have discovered that what they thought was the American dream—a nice home for the family—is actually an American nightmare—the potential cause of a range of health problems and a stack of medical bills. But is the issue receiving enough attention? Not for people like Turner. "States are really dragging their feet on this issue," she says.
The Alkinanis agree. Because there were no meth lab disclosure laws in Utah at the time they bought their house, they have no financial or legal recourse. "We are paying the price for what one person did," says Jaimee Alkinani. "My child will likely have a lifetime of permanent medical issues because of this house, and we are going into bankruptcy because we can't sell the house."
This article is provided by Scienceline, a project of New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.