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Q&A: Meth contamination

May 11, 2011

Q. What is meth?

A. Methamphetamine is a highly addictive central nervous system stimulant that’s relatively easy and inexpensive to make with common household chemicals. It can be smoked, injected, snorted or eaten. Smoking is the most popular method, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Q. How do homes become contaminated with meth?

A. Most people know that homes can be contaminated through the manufacturing of meth, which releases toxic substances – including meth itself. The contaminants get onto surfaces and into drywall, curtains, furniture and carpeting.

But smoking meth can also contaminate a home, though to a lesser degree than manufacturing. Smoking meth involves inhalation of a vapor. Any vapor not inhaled is released into the surrounding area.

The state has set a standard of 0.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters as the threshold for clean-ups. Three of the samples taken during a February test at the house of Jason and Lauren Hardy came back with levels above the threshold.

A study conducted by John Martyny and other researchers for National Jewish Medical and Research Center concluded that an average smoke of about 100 milligrams of meth will create contamination levels of about 0.02 micrograms per 100 square centimeters.

However, levels rise if more smoking takes place, or more meth is used per smoke. The Utah health department says it is estimated that surface contamination from smoking results in a mean of 1.5 to 5.1 micrograms.

In contrast, levels from a single cook can produce surface contamination of 860 micrograms per 100 square centimeters, researchers said. Martyny’s research found that meth deposited on a surface from cooking appears to degrade about 20 percent over a several-month period, so it can stay around awhile, depending how much was manufactured.

Q. What are the health consequences of being in a place contaminated from meth manufacturing or use?

A. People exposed to contaminated sites in the short-term report headaches, nausea and vomiting, respiratory problems and eye irritation. Long-term consequences aren’t fully known, although exposure to contamination from manufacturing poses the greatest risk because the chemicals used can affect the central nervous system, liver and kidneys, and cause birth defects, miscarriages and cancer.

The health risks associated with those who use meth are better documented.

Q. How can I tell if a property is contaminated with meth?

A. If the property was used for manufacturing, you might find glassware, hoses, red or yellow staining, stained coffee filters, and unusual quantities of common household chemicals and substances, such as hydrogen peroxide and iodine, in unusual places.

Signs of use might include syringes, pipes, and burned aluminum foil. But meth manufacturers and users can dispose of the evidence, so the only sure way to tell is to get the property tested for contamination.

Q. Who should test my house?

A. State statutes and regulations specify that testing by done by either a certified industrial hygienist, or by an industrial hygienist who meets the educational and experiential requirements set forth in state statute. The person should present a statement of qualifications – essentially an affidavit that specifies the person’s training and experience. Be aware that a person who is an industrial hygienist might not have experience in meth contamination testing. And don’t use the person who will be cleaning your house to do the testing for contamination. Expect to pay several hundred dollars or more, depending on the size of the house and the testing company you use. Home kits also are available as a low-cost testing tool, but they may not be reliable as a professional test. However, one positive result should be a cause for concern.

Q. Are some properties more suspect than others?

A. Any property that has been in foreclosure is a red flag, as are HUD homes, experts say. But no home is guaranteed safe. Last year, a million-dollar house in the high-end Peregrine neighborhood tested positive for dangerous levels of meth.

Q. What is a real estate agent’s role?

A. Doug Barber of The Rawhide Co. says there is no requirement for agents to say anything about a test, though some will suggest it. Real estate contracts include a disclosure clause that can serve as a nudge to buyers, but they might overlook it and their agent might not mention it. Ultimately, the buyer has to decide whether to get the test done. “It’s one more thing to check anymore,” Barber said. Real estate agents may also be able to recommend professionals who can test and do clean-ups.

Q. What other things can I do to protect myself?

A. Ask neighbors about the property and who lived there. Search law enforcement records for that address. The Utah Department of Health has online brochures targeting various parties involved in real estate transactions on how to deal with meth contamination. Go to, and click on “brochures.” If a property has been cleaned up to state standards, it will no longer be on any registry, and a seller does not have to disclose that it was once contaminated with meth.

Sources: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; Tri-County Health Department; Utah Department of Health; Caoimhin P. Connell of Forensic Applications Consulting Technologies; Doug Barber, The Rawhide Company;

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