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Cleaning up the meth mess

Experts say the danger is real, but should cleanups of homes be mandated - and if so, who pays?

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By Christine Byers
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — In thousands of methamphetamine busts each year, drug agents don protective suits and breathe through respirators as they cart away toxic chemicals.

But they leave something behind.

For years, invisible meth residue remains trapped in ductwork, carpeting and walls.

Eighteen states have decided that the residue is so hazardous the homes must be decontaminated.

But not Missouri and Illinois - both states among the top five for lab busts in 2007.

And that leaves people like Dennis and Tina Kasden feeling vulnerable.

They moved into a home on a peaceful lake in Jefferson County six months after it was raided for meth in 2007. Then they started getting sick. And though doctors can’t say for sure why, the Kasdens have no doubt.

“All I know is, inhalers that used to last me six months now only last me one month,” said Dennis Kasden, who suffers from a sinus condition.

Testing commissioned by the Post-Dispatch found meth residue levels in the home so severe, the house would be condemned in 13 states.

Missouri health officials say research has yet to prove meth residue is dangerous, so they don’t believe it’s fair to mandate costly cleanups.

Illinois health officials acknowledge the health risk, but lawmakers there have yet to act.

Caught in the middle are local officials - some of whom say they’re tired of watching families like the Kasdens move into homes without knowing the risks national experts believe exist at their new addresses.

“Who knows what’s in these houses, what they used to cook meth with?” said St. Louis County building inspector Aaron Tossey. “For the communities, they deserve for government agencies to address this. They deserve better.”

Researching the risk

The 18 states with cleanup laws often cite the research of Dr. John Martyny of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center and Dr. Jeff Burgess, a professor for the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health.

In research spanning a decade, both have found that police officers involved in meth raids, children removed from meth labs and people who have moved in after the raids have suffered short-term symptoms including headaches, nausea and asthma.

But both concede there is no test to pinpoint meth residue as the cause of the symptoms.

Nor have they studied long-term effects. They say not enough time has passed to do so.

Yet both insist meth residue is dangerous.

“There is no question these labs should be cleaned before people move in,” Burgess said. “I wouldn’t want to move my family into a former lab that hadn’t been cleaned up.”

The U.S. EPA plans to issue voluntary cleanup guidelines this year but has yet to set an acceptable residue level. Congress wants the EPA to set a level by 2011, but the agency said it lacks the money to study the issue.

Even without those results, the EPA is convinced meth residue poses a health risk, said Dr. Kevin Teischman, a deputy administrator for science with the agency’s Office of Research and Development. But with no federal mandate to force cleanups or set residue levels, it’s up to states to decide what residue levels are dangerous and what to do about it.

A varied approach

With no way to say what is an acceptable level of residue, some states have set their own.

Thirteen have decided that no residue is safe and have set the levels at the lowest that can be detected, or the equivalent of spreading one packet of sugar across 23 football fields.

Four states have a higher limit - roughly a sugar packet spread over four football fields.

Cleaning a house that was used to cook meth to either of those standards can cost more than $10,000 for professional contractors.

Health officials in states with cleanup laws say cost is the biggest hindrance to compliance.

The 18th state with a cleanup mandate, North Carolina, has not set a standard for residue levels. It allows property owners to do the cleanups as long as they follow the state’s guidelines.

Some states require that only severely contaminated homes be cleaned by professionals. Others require all to be professionally cleaned, sometimes by state-certified contractors.

Some put liens against homes to cover the cost and force cleanups. In extreme cases, when the cost of the cleanup outweighs what the house is worth, states require former meth labs to be bulldozed.

‘Jumping the gun’

Missouri state officials, including Dr. Rebecca Tominack, think those states are “jumping the gun.” “You can make an issue out of something and get people all worried and upset, but you’re not doing them a favor if you’re not science-based,” said Tominack of the Missouri Regional Poison Center. “Detection does not equal poisoning.”

Public Health Epidemiologist Gale Carlson said concerns about meth residue are overblown.

“You need to ingest this stuff, like lick walls and countertops, but is it a significant enough dose to cause adverse health effects?” asked Carlson, of Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services. “That is something we believe has not been discussed, discovered or researched enough.”

That’s not the view of the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, a congressionally funded group that studies drug laws across the country.

In a yearlong study for the U.S. Department of Justice, the group noted that labs not cleaned “pose significant environmental and health threats.”

States shouldn’t ignore or downplay the risks, said Sherry Green, the group’s executive director.

“To cavalierly insinuate that other states are simply giving in to fear mongering on this issue is irresponsible,” Green said.

Martyny said Missouri health officials are “out of the loop” if they believe licking surfaces is the only way to be exposed to meth residue. He said walking into a former meth lab for someone with respiratory issues is similar to someone with cat allergies walking into a home where a cat once lived.

“You don’t know there was a cat there because you lick your hands. You know because the dander gets airborne and you inhale it,” Martyny said. “If you already have asthma, a little bit of meth goes a long way.”

Even Carlson won’t rule out a risk to young families.

“I’m 63 years old, and knowing what I know about meth labs, I wouldn’t be worried,” he said. “But I don’t have kids crawling around.”

Local action

For now, Missouri health officials offer only suggestions for cleanup, and that frustrates some county health officials across the state.

In Webster County, near Springfield, the Health Department offers inexpensive tests to detect meth residue in a home. But they can’t force previous or current owners to pay for cleanups. They can only hand the current owners the state’s cleanup guidelines.

“It’s heart wrenching to leave them because that’s all we can do by law,” said Richard Mann, a county environmental health specialist.

“Right now, this is all we can do and say: ‘Have a nice life and we hope you don’t get sick.’”

But some counties aren’t waiting for the state to take action.

Police in St. Louis and St. Charles counties have begun telling county inspectors of meth lab busts in unincorporated areas. Inspectors then force cleanups through existing nuisance ordinances that require properties be safe and sanitary.

About a dozen former meth labs have been condemned in unincorporated St. Charles County. Six have been cleaned, one demolished, and the rest either await work or are involved in court action, said Art Genasci, director of neighborhood preservation.

“We’re fortunate that some local jurisdictions are addressing the issue, but I would hope the state would address it so everyone could be protected statewide,” Genasci said.

Tossey said fewer than a dozen former meth labs have been cleaned since he started working with St. Louis County police. He worries about the hundreds of other houses that already have new families living in them.

“Meth labs can destroy these properties. They can reduce the value and appearance,” Tossey said. “This is all a battle, a fight for the value and safety of our communities.”

Illinois cleanups

In the Metro East area, no counties are condemning former meth labs.

The state, like Missouri, also hasn’t mandated cleanup.

But the Illinois Department of Public Health has taken limited steps - working with state child-welfare workers in a handful of cases to force parents in busted meth labs to clean up the properties before they could get their children back.

The state Health Department’s meth expert, toxicologist Kathy Marshall, believes meth labs should be decontaminated. But lawmakers must mandate it.

For now, Marshall said she’s doing all that she can.

Every time police tell her about busts, she sends letters to the property owner recommending they follow the state’s cleanup guidelines. She said the letters often reach out-of-state landlords who have no idea why the rent stopped coming in.

Most letters are ignored.

“Unless people are forced to do it, they’re not going to, or they’re going to drag their feet about it,” she said. “All we can do is give advice and hope they follow it.”

Missouri health officials don’t send letters. Instead, they post online guidelines, which contain advice similar to Illinois’ letters.

In 2005, Missouri’s health officials tested the guidelines to clean former meth labs.

They got conflicting results.

“It drove us crazy,” Carlson said. “In some places, after we cleaned it, we actually made it worse. But, by and large, they worked well.”

The Kasdens said they would have preferred to live in a state that forced owners to clean up labs. That way, they wouldn’t have moved into one and been stuck with the risks.

They can’t afford to hire a professional company.

They say they’re going to try to decontaminate their home on their own - and hope it works.

Copyright 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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