NZ's meth legacy may affect motels, baches and even cars
Could a tenth of all New Zealand motel rooms now be toxic from P smoking? Is every property investor at risk of huge methamphetamine clean-up bills? JOHN McCRONE reports on the growing meth decontamination industry.
Marketing an ex-meth house has its problems. How do you run the open home for a start? Prospective buyers for a recent back-section, three-bedroom bungalow auction in Christchurch found themselves standing outside and peering through the windows.
They had the option of going inside, at their own risk. But advertised as "contaminated, uninsured, property of a deceased estate", there were not many there to admire the indoor-outdoor flow. With a rateable value of $370,000, the Bishopdale home eventually passed under the hammer at a steeply discounted $287,000.
On its own, it seems just another modern-day cautionary tale. Perhaps even a thumbs up because it suggests that tighter estate agent disclosure rules are working.
But there are those who say that methamphetamine or P contamination of properties has become a major hidden health issue in New Zealand. And it is not simply the pop-up meth labs where cooking has occurred that are the worry. Meth smoking itself will coat any room with its toxic residue.
Dr Nicholas Powell of Forensic and Industrial Science, whose Auckland laboratory has almost been given over to meth testing, says any time you now rent a house or book a weekend bach, you need to wonder who might have used the place before you.
It makes him sound a bit of a nerd, Powell admits, but he routinely swabs his motel whenever he travels, then analyses the results when he gets back to the lab. "It's a busman's holiday I guess."
Powell mentions a particular motor camp in Christchurch where he was staying with his family. The tourist cabin was not just freshly painted but also varnish-sealed. That was a wee bit suspicious, says Powell.
"I thought this is nicely spruced up. Then I couldn't sleep. I was very restless all night. My little girl had a bad night's sleep as well." Powell says meth is a potent stimulant and even trace amounts can produce an effect, especially on non-users, the young, and the elderly.
It was worse than he thought. "I was quite shocked. From the chemical signature, it was clear there'd been actual meth manufacture undertaken in the unit."
Powell says merely finding evidence of meth smoking would hardly surprise him anymore. "I find traces in about half of all North Island motels where I stay. About a third in the South Island."
It shows just how widespread use has become, he says. And while usually the concentrations are safely below Ministry of Health (MoH) guidelines, about 10 per cent of the time they are over.
Powell, who is also deputy chair of the cross-agency Auckland Regional Methamphetamine Working Group (ARMWG), speaks with something of the bemused detachment of the scientist. He is only reporting what he is finding.
But there are others in the fast-expanding meth testing and clean-up industry happy to talk about meth contamination as a ticking time bomb problem for the country – and not just as a general health risk, but as the next "leaky homes" financial nightmare for property owners.
Todd Sheppard of Hamilton-based Envirocheck is driving cross-country when I call, on his way to supervise the stripping out of another rental that was turned into a clandestine P lab.
Sheppard says in the past few years his business has grown from a one man band to a staff of 11 with clean ups like this that can cost a property owner or insurer up to $100,000 once you start ripping out the walls, ceilings and carpets.
He says it is a bigger issue than people realise because it is only since 2010 that there has been an official guideline from the MoH on what counts as meth contamination. That was when local authorities were forced to take notice and so the testing and clean-up business really began. But P had already been in wide circulation for a decade before then, so his clean-up teams are dealing with a legacy of poisons often built up over many years.
And also people have been learning as they go. Many of the early clean-ups have to be redone because people did not realise how deeply the chemicals can penetrate a house, says Sheppard.
Ventilation systems and ceiling spaces were missed. Gib board walls which may have tested clean when they were first sugar-soaped and repainted are now leaking the junk back out again.
Sheppard says you are talking an untold number of rental properties, hotels and holiday homes that could be sitting on a big expense when they are uncovered. And if you really want to worry, the next place this is going to go is second-hand cars.
"Because of the enclosed air space, when people are smoking up in cars, it's going to be a lot more concentrated." Sheppard says a random test of one small car yard in the US found 15 vehicles registering positive. Right now he is doing some quiet sampling for a car auction house to discover how bad the problem could be in New Zealand.
"It's the next scary thing, because there's no way to clean up cars. They've got ventilation systems going all through them. So the only guideline really is to squash them." The one way trip to the car crusher, Sheppard says.
Another health scare?
It is easy to dismiss such talk as a scare story – an obvious beat-up by the very industry that wants to create a market for its testing and decontamination services. Add it to black mould, carpet fire retardants, asbestos ceilings, and all the other tiny health risks which we mostly manage to ignore.
Besides, isn't the meth epidemic yesterday news? In 2008, methamphetamine was being hyped up into a national crisis. New Zealand with it tight border controls and DIY culture had become the biggest per capita user of this homebaked drug. Just steal some cold pills and brew up a batch with a recipe found on the internet.
P educators were warning parents that P was going to burn through a generation because it was not like anything that had gone before. Rate it for neurotransmitter stimulation and sex is 200, cocaine is 400, while meth is 1200. One hit and you are addicted – got to keep going until your brain is fried.
Yet since then everyone has had time to laugh along with five whole series of the TV black comedy, Breaking Bad – Walter White, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned superbad meth master-cook.
And media coverage has dropped back to a low buzz. MoH figures suggest recreational use halved between 2009 and 2013 as police clamped down on the supply of pseudoephedrine, the precursor, and as the perils of meth became heavily advertised.
However drug researchers say a new younger generation of users looks to be taking off. And hotspots like the Christchurch rebuild, with its cashed-up construction workers, are embedding the habit in new places.
Powell even offers the grim view that P is such a nasty drug it may have reached its own steady state toll on the New Zealand population. "There might be some sort of equilibrium that's been achieved now between the recruitment of new users on the one hand and the attrition by imprisonment, abstention or death on the other."
But getting back to the question of whether the problem of second-hand meth contamination is simply an industry beat-up, Powell says instead New Zealand is doing a good job of recognising there is a genuine hazard.
Ahead of the Australians and the US – where meth is a similar DIY drug problem for the same reasons – we have created a national contamination standard which local councils are actively enforcing. The surfaces in living areas have to be able to pass a meth reading of less than 0.5 micrograms to a 10 x 10 cm square.
Powell says at this level, and even somewhat higher, a meth residue is unlikely to cause a healthy adult noticeable health issues – unless it is in their bedrooms and they are breathing it for a third of the day.
But the guidelines have to take into account infants crawling about the floor or those with compromised health. "They were set at a level to recognise the most vulnerable." After five years, the MoH benchmark still feels about right, says Powell – neither too loose, nor too alarmist.
And the policy net is getting tighter. Envirocheck's Sheppard says 15 industry representatives were meeting with Standards NZ this week to develop written procedures for both testing and cleaning.
Sheppard says there are test kits that anyone can buy over the internet and set up a freelance business without a proper forensic lab. There is the risk of cowboy cleaners who might cut corners or not know what they are doing. It is time for some standardised industry practices which the public can rely upon.
The ARMWG is also just beginning a study to gauge what percentage of homes are in fact contaminated by P smoking. If the figures are as bad as most suspect, local authorities are going to have to respond.
Miles Stratford who runs Auckland-based MethSolutions, set up three years ago to target property investors, says there is another reason why meth contamination is going to become a much more visible issue in New Zealand. Simply, the cost of testing has dropped from $2000 a property to nearer $200 – while the cost of some resulting clean-ups remain an arm and a leg.
Stratford says the early testing was expensive because a forensic laboratory had to send out its specialist. The analysis also usually included checks for all the different chemicals used in meth manufacture. At that price, people were only getting tests done if they really had to.
But now businesses like his train building inspectors and property managers on how to swab rooms correctly. So that saves on the field work. The samples are then analysed in a professional lab.
This means the wary are starting to check houses routinely before they buy them. And a positive reading means a sale not only falls through but the sellers know they have a problem and the disclosure rules kick in.
Stratford says renters also are beginning to ask for their own tests when they think P contamination might be making them sick. "For the person whose got zero-tolerance for meth because they've never used it, and they move into a property where there's been a bunch of meth heads, they really do suffer health effects."
Stratford says he has dealt with many cases – like the farm manager who moved into a farm property where the last guy had been a bit "dodgy", so did a check after his family started to suffer headaches, sleeplessness and ill-health. Or an Auckland woman who had taken on a newly renovated rental then media reports made it click that meth could be her problem.
"She'd been there three years and her health had really deteriorated. She had emphysema. She was always out of sorts. When we did detailed testing behind the paint in her kitchen area, it was 30 times health guideline levels." Steadily, a once-easy-to-conceal issue is being brought into the light, says Stratford.
"If you get a positive test, there's no requirement on anyone to notify the authorities. But we will encourage you to talk to the real estate agent, talk to the property owner, so it's all flushed out in the open, nipped in the bud, rather than the health risk and the financial liability just getting passed from person to person."
Stratford says, being cynical, there are limits to how much the government is likely to tighten up on things. Some are calling for meth testing to become part of the new warrant of fitness legislation being talked about for rental homes.
However Stratford says the reality is that owning an investment property – being a landlord – is New Zealand's biggest small business. Any government is going to tread carefully when it faces such a powerful lobby of voters.
But more widespread testing, especially if coupled to tougher penalties for renting out an unfit property, will change behaviour, says Stratford. Owners will have to think twice before grabbing a scrubbing brush and tub of polyurethane varnish, covering up after a P-using tenant and hoping no-one notices.
In the meantime, the meth contamination business is going to keep developing. Stratford is also a director of MethMinder which markets a Kiwi-invented meth detection alarm.
Stratford says it is just like a smoke alarm except it communicates by inbuilt cellphone connection to a control room. And of course it is fitted with some serious anti-tamper sensors. So landlords can buy themselves peace of mind by fitting their properties with them, catching meth use before it can get out of hand.
Stratford accepts it is a cost – $10 a week even with a property manager's bulk discount. But slipping into his sales pitch, he says tenants will happily pay a slightly higher rent to be assured they are living in a meth-free property. And then what better way to filter out precisely the kind of tenants you do not want?
"If you're meth managing a property by having a detector, then how good an aid is that as far as your tenant selection is concerned?" Show them that and the dodgy types won't want to live there, Stratford says.
A minor cautionary tale
Clearly there is a motivation to talk up the degree of meth contamination. Stratford is hoping to take his meth alarm international next. Meth cleaning franchises have started to emerge. Second-hand car dealers look to be the next in this firing line.
There is more than a buck or two to be made on way or another. And those like Sheppard are certainly passionate advocates for what they are doing.
Sheppard says he is 95 per cent social worker and 5 per cent solution provider because property owners find it so traumatic to be caught out with a contaminated residence.
He says some take comfort in thinking that a clan lab is the worst case, but quite rare. Meth smoking may be common, yet leaves only a simple drug residue rather than the full cocktail of the poisons from brewing.
However in practice the line is more blurred. By its DIY nature, a surprising number of addicts end up trying to bake, says Sheppard. Or else they are forced to pay their drug debts by letting the gangs move in and cook-up on their premises.
And again it has been a problem that was developing for 10 years before it got attention. Even inadvertently in all that time many properties will have been redecorated, trapping toxins in a way that makes them now much harder to clean.
"One [Auckland] real estate agent decided to start doing a screening of all their properties prior to listing. But within the first week they gave that up as they got too many positives coming in," says Sheppard.
So meth is far from yesterday's news. Its true impact both in terms of health and the financial burden is still emerging. Please write this bit down, Sheppard says.
"I sat down and quantified for ACC that every kilogram of meth used in New Zealand costs tax payers $24 million in social costs. There's the loss of life – the loss of potential earnings of $1m per person; the ongoing medical and social disability costs; then the decontamination cost of that amount of meth being burnt throughout New Zealand properties."
There is the counter that official figures for meth use are still fairly low. A 2014 MoH survey found only 1 per cent of the population admitted to using amphetamines in the previous year. Heavy users will be even fewer and further between.
But the as is/where is sales of ex-meth houses are now popping up in estate agent listings. Holiday makers may well be wondering who else could have found an out-of-the-way bach so attractive for a quiet week or two, or what went on in their motel room.
It sounds like the kind of thing which is only a minor cautionary tale – until you are unlucky enough to get caught up in something like it yourself.
- The Press