Profile: Taranaki meth tester Karen Baker talks about P-houses video

TARYN UTIGER/Stuff.co.nz

Taranaki woman Karen Baker talks about testing houses for methamphetamine contamination.


In the last few months business has become busier and busier for Taranaki meth tester ​Karen Baker. 

The Stratford woman started in the methamphetamine testing industry about a year ago and to begin with she was having a hard time convincing real estate agents to test houses. 

Now, they are phoning her.  

Karen Baker, of Detect-It NZ, with one of her pieces of equipment for meth testing
Taryn Utiger

Karen Baker, of Detect-It NZ, with one of her pieces of equipment for meth testing

"When I started talking to real estate people in Taranaki they said it wasn't a problem here," she says. 

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"If we go back a couple of months people would say 'I don't really think we have a problem, there's no point, we don't need to test.' Now, as testing is coming through, people are finding more and more properties that have got it. 

"It's a problem in New Zealand. In Taranaki, well, it's certainly here. I know of two on Frankley Rd alone." 

Baker, who runs the business Detect-It NZ, has been in the news recently for finding a mystery chemical in a young girl's Housing New Zealand bedroom in Marfell.

But the 52-year-old hasn't always been a meth-tester. Her background is in water testing and she says she sort of fell into meth-testing at the advice of a friend.

"I got into it, not because I decided I was going to do this, but because I realised there was very little information and the guidelines weren't that clear. I felt that we needed to improve what we did," she says.

"It's taken me awhile to realise I was going to make this a business. I started providing support, technical support, and looking at ways to improve the situation."

The first piece of meth-testing equipment Baker bought was a hand-held Volatile Organic Compounds meter, which she says costs about $10,000 and therefore isn't used by many testers.  

"I looked at air testing because these units can pick up real low-levels of anything that is volatile, so if you have any levels of contamination, I should be able to pick it up," she says. 

If Baker picks up any contamination in a property further testing can be done, the most accurate of which is the laboratory test. 

To do these Baker takes a 100-square-centimetre template and holds it against a wall, rubbing it with gauze that has been soaked in methanol.

The gauze is then put into a specimen jar and sent off to a lab. The test results come back within 10 days. 

After that, Baker has the task of telling people if their home is contaminated with the class-A drug or not. 

"I'm picking P up in a lot of very different places," she says. 

Although she doesn't want to reveal too many details about the contaminated properties, because of confidentiality, she says there are properties in Opunake, Stratford and New Plymouth that have tested positive for methamphetamine. 

"As well as the tests, I also look for signs of meth or drug use, and obviously there's plenty of signs. The house starts to talk to you.

"Crazy art is one. Murals. I went into this garage in Opunake and saw one and I thought, 'Oh, that's pretty out there'. People get in touch with their artistic talents I think, when they are on this drug. 

"So that was one of my clues when I went into the property in Opunake. I take a test, it comes back and they have meth." 

Baker says one of her main motivations for doing the testing is to see an improvement in housing standards, especially in homes where children could be effected by methamphetamine contamination. 

"Children are really good at measuring P, because they react more. But I don't think we use them as testers," she says. 

"Most of the symptoms are respiratory to begin with. Kids end up with chest infections that won't go away.

"Most importantly, if you've got children, [watch to see if] they're constantly ill or sick, [or] they have respiratory symptoms. Some children can develop rashes and sores that don't go away or can't be healed."

There are also other symptoms, she says. 

"You may suffer from insomnia. You may, when you arrive at the property, after half an hour, get a headache, or you may feel sick and every time you leave your property you may feel better.

"If you feel better after you leave your house then you might want to consider doing something about that and perhaps checking it out."

What standards are in place for testing? 
In short, there are no standards for methamphetamine testing and clean-up in New Zealand. However, there are Ministry guidelines. While they don't explicitly confirm a safe level, they establish an acceptable level post-remediation: less than 0.5 micrograms per 100 square centimetres. 

What about standards for testers? 
The Institute of Environmental Science and Research says as far as it knows, there are no testing standards commercial operators must meet.

Are standards coming? 
Work is under way to develop a new New Zealand standard that will cover the testing and decontamination of meth-contaminated properties. The technical committee that will prepare the standard has been appointed and 4 and will meet this month.

I'm renting a house: who's responsible for testing? 
If landlords rent out a property that is contaminated, they are breaching their obligations under the Residential Tenancies Act 1986, as well as other legislation such as the Building Act and the Health Act.

However, there is no obligation for landlords to test their property and, while they must decontaminate it before it is re-tenanted under the Residential Tenancies Act, their duty does not extend to disclosing its history to prospective tenants unless asked.

How much does it all cost? 
The costs of sorting out contamination vary wildly. Costs for detailed testing range from $249 to $10,000, while decontamination can range from $2000 to $50,000. 

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How to spot a meth house:
* Brown stains on walls and red or yellow stains on the floors
* Chemical stains around the kitchen sink, laundry, toilet or stormwater drains
* Oily residue on surfaces
* Unusual chemical smells, blocked drains, missing light bulbs, numerous chemical containers, stained glass equipment and cookware
* Cold tablet packages (in the rubbish or lying around) Drug paraphernalia including glass pipes and needles on the property

Source: Housing New Zealand

 - Stuff

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