SALT LAKE CITY — Recently a family member got married and decided to buy a home. He was shopping for something a newly married student could afford, and found out what I have known for some time: There are a lot of meth-contaminated properties out there.
We looked at one home located along the Wasatch Front. It was small but it had potential. Based on what I saw, I suspected meth. When I told him that we should sample for contamination, his new wife nixed the house. I had some reservations about walking away so quickly, but we moved to the next home on his list. At this one, the same signs came up, and a phone call to the realtor revealed that she strongly suggested a meth test. Disappointed, he kept looking. After a good deal of searching, he found another. That one turned out likely to be positive as well.
We’re all concerned about meth contamination. No one wants to unknowingly walk into a contaminated home. What we don’t know is that in all likelihood, many of us have done just that. If you enter homes professionally, you have probably been in any number of meth-contaminated properties. Even if you don’t, chances are good that you have been in at least one meth contaminated property.
People who go into homes as a part of their job are at greatest risk of exposure. This list might include realtors, home inspectors, plumbers, electricians and carpet installers. Then there are others who may have less exposure like pastors or bishops, door-to-door salesmen and other visitors. As a home inspector and meth-decontamination specialist, I can say from experience that certain categories of homes can be a high likelihood of having a meth history, but that no particular type of house is safe.
Meth contamination definition
Let’s back up a bit. To determine what is safe, one would have to look at state requirements. The state of Utah has defined contamination to be 1.0 microgram per 100 square centimeters. To put this in English, this is the equivalent of about a grain of salt spread over the palm of your hand. If contamination at a property is greater than this, the home is legally contaminated. If less than this, the state of Utah says you’re good. Other states have other levels. For example, West Virginia and Colorado allows a threshold of 0.5. Washington, Vermont and Hawaii require a threshold of 0.1. Some states have no requirements at all relating to meth decontamination.
There are some who argue that the meth-decontamination business is overhyped, overregulated and in cases, fraudulent. This list includes some highly educated individuals and others close to the business.
Lab or use?
It’s also important to distinguish between meth labs and meth use. Meth labs cook the stuff. They use commonly available household chemicals to cook meth and in doing so can cause a variety of problems in the home. Labs can have toxic fumes and chemical residuals, and bad batches can burn, completely destroying the home.
By contrast, use is quite different. Users will contaminate a property with vapors from the drug. Homes with meth use often have very unsanitary conditions and signs of neglect and abuse. As a general rule, meth labs will cause much higher contamination levels than meth use.
What to look for
If you are a potential homebuyer, there are four categories of items you should look for. This list is based on experience only, and is not likely to be found in any official publications. These four items are listed below:
By the numbers…
- 1.0 microgram per 100 square centimeters qualifies in Utah as contamination.
- The equivalent of about a grain of salt spread over the palm of your hand.
- 0.5. per 100 square centimeters is ground for contamination in West Virginia and Colorado.
- Washington, Vermont and Hawaii require a threshold of 0.1. per 100 square centimeters.
1. Small, old, foreclosed, apartments, rentals and wayward occupants
The first would be the type of home and its previous occupants. As a home inspector, I usually ask about previous occupants. If the home was owned and occupied by only one couple for a number of years, the potential risk drops. If I hear that it was given or rented to a wayward child, or occupied by the buddy who had nowhere to go, the perceived risk factor soars.
2. The home is trashed, or used to be trashed and is now spiffed up
Meth users can be hard on a place. There will be piles of everything everywhere. There will be stains, there may be feces, there will be smells, but we’ll get to that. In short, if the place is trashed, that’s a sign that a potential homebuyer may want to test the property prior to buying the place.
3. Pet urine smell
Meth homes often have a urine smell. While the writer lacks first-hand knowledge with using meth, experience shows that these homes often have that smell. This may be because meth itself can smell like urine. It could also be because people who are high don’t always make it to the bathroom. In any case, this is another telltale sign that the home should be tested.
4. Signs of anger
It’s pretty common in meth contaminated homes: call it signs of anger. This would be damaged doors, damaged door frames, damaged sheet rock, etc. I have seen bedroom doors that have been completely obliterated by angry meth users. I have seen countless door frames that have been destroyed, then patched together using screws, epoxies, or whatever the occupant can get his hands on. Sometimes these trashed homes will be fixed up by a house flipper, by the relatives, etc. This means that new doors and door frames should cause suspicion as well; if the house is old and the doors and frames are new, this may mean something. While they may look better, the contamination nearly always remains.
Of course the only way to know for sure on any home is to test. If you’re not potentially going to buy the home, this may not be an option. If you are considering any home purchase, you should walk in with your eyes wide open.
Protect yourself. If you work in homes, reasonable precautions will likely be adequate. If you’re buying a home, meth contamination does not have to kill a deal. In fact, as a potential homebuyer you may be able to use contamination to your advantage. Surround yourself with knowledge and capable professionals, and you can protect yourself.