Three Western Washington University students were left without a home Nov. 4 after they discovered the house they were renting was contaminated by methamphetamine.
Renting the old, tan, paint-chipped two-story house on East Myrtle Street may have been easy, but living in it was not as simple, the three women said. After the women noticed that they were experiencing health issues such as upper respiratory problems and fogginess while in the house, they began to worry, Western student Francesca Weikert, one of the residents of the home, said.
Western sophomores Nikki Gemmell, Paige Stevenson and Weikert discovered their house had been home to a methamphetamine user.
After hearing a rumor from a friend, the roommates first contacted their rental company, All County Property Management. When the company refused to test the home, the women contacted the Whatcom County Health Department to get the home tested for the presence of the drug.
The test on Oct. 28 revealed the home’s walls were contaminated with more than 10 times the legal limit for methamphetamine toxicity in a home.
The girls were surprised that the property management company refused to perform the test.
“They didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” Weikert said. “They actually called another roommate who used to live there last year to call us and tell us that everything was OK and calm us down.”
The prior tenant called the women and tried to convince them the roommate had not smoked in the house, Weikert said. But she wasn’t sure the previous renter could be trusted.
The rental management company continued to deny the house had any such history.
“Our management wouldn’t help us out,” Stevenson said. “They denied anything was wrong with the house, and [said] we should go about living in it. They didn’t want to get any tests done.”
The management company could not be reached for comment.
The woman at the rental management company the women were talking to took the complaint personally and didn’t understand the entire situation, Stevenson said.
The women finally decided to get the tests done themselves and called the Whatcom County Health Department for help, Weikert said.
The test to check for methamphetamine in a house is a swab test. A piece of paper with a square cut out of the middle is placed on a wall and then swabbed with gauze and a tester fluid to get the sample, said Jeff Hegedus, a supervisor at the Whatcom County Health Department.
The department then sent the gauze to a lab and tested for the drugs, he said. In Whatcom County, the legal limit for methamphetamine in a house is 0.1 micrograms. The swabs the Whatcom County Health Department got back from the residence came up with 1.3 micrograms, according to a test result document from the health department, Hegedus said.
Once a house comes back with a contamination level over the legal limit, the fact that the house had once been contaminated stays on the title forever, Hegedus said.
Management told the women they couldn’t believe the results they got back and told the women to leave immediately, Weikert said.
“The day [we got the results] we had to move out,” Weikert said. “The second we found out there was meth, we got kicked out [by the property management], and we’re homeless now.”
The property has since been taken from All County Property Management and is still deemed unsuitable for living.
“You have to be careful in Bellingham. Not everyone is as nice as you want them to be,” Weikert said of the rental company.
Even though they have a good case against the property management, their lawyers don’t believe they have a strong enough case to get more than their rent back and compensation for personal damages, Stevenson said.
Each of the women is currently living with friends. Stevenson is staying with a friend, but has also slept some nights in the library, she said. She has also crashed there when she needs to take a quick nap, she said.
Weikert is living with a small group of friends, and Gemmell is currently living with her boyfriend.
After leaving the house, most of the symptoms have subsided for the women, but Gemmell developed asthma while living in the house, Stevenson said.
The Associated Students Legal Information Center has resources to help students in such situations. Although the center cannot offer legal advice, it can support students during legal situations and let the students know what their rights are in any given case, said Samantha Goldblatt, Legal Information Center coordinator, in an email.
“There are free legal clinics in Bellingham,” Goldblatt said. “And many lawyers give free legal consultations along with offering payment plans.”
Update: A second, “wipe sample” test performed on the house Thursday, Dec. 5 showed methamphetamine contamination levels as high as 4.2 micrograms per 100 square centimeters, according a report prepared by Bio Clean, Inc. The highest reading came from samples taken in a bathroom.
All of several possible decontamination methods should be conducted by a Washington State drug lab cleanup contractor, according to the report. Three methods outlined in the report included washing and decontaminating the house — Bio Clean’s recommendation for this case — removing certain parts of the house including drywall and demolishing the house.
When the health department’s test shows methamphetamine levels over the legal limit, the next step is a test by a contractor, such as Bio Clean, Whatcom County Health Department supervisor Jeff Hegedus said Monday, Dec. 12.
Depending on secondary test results, the next step is for the property owner to submit a decontamination plan to the health department for approval. There is no deadline for the Myrtle Street house’s decontamination plan, but it is in the property owner’s best interest to act quickly because the house will remain listed unsuitable for occupancy until it retests with levels below the legal limit, Hegedus said.
Between 12 and 20 buildings in the county have to be decontaminated annually because of methamphetamine levels, Hegedus said. While much higher than the 0.1 legal limit, 4.2 micrograms per 100 square centimeters is not unusual for a contaminated building, he said.
The contamination could have been caused by a single person using methamphetamine on multiple occasions or a group of people using it once: it is hard to tell because methamphetamine residue clings to walls similarly to nicotine from cigarette smoke, Hegedus said. Similar ambiguity applies to how long ago methamphetamine was last used or produced in a building. Methamphetamine residue can contaminate a building for a year or more after its last use, depending on frequency and amount of exposure, he said.
Since discovery of the contamination, the property managers have been cooperative with the health department, he said.