Details of the number of clan-lab busts and information on the harm likely to occur from living in a property where methamphetamine has been produced shows that the scale of the problem has been substantially overstated.
Methamphetamine, or crystal methamphetamine hydrochloride, which is also known as “P”, is a powerful and highly addictive drug that is synthesised or “cooked” in makeshift laboratories, using precursor substances such as ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as key ingredients.
Government-driven alarm about the clandestine manufacture of P in rental properties, motels, storage lock-ups, and car boots, has created a little industry for people who offer testing and clean-up services.
Typically after a lab is discovered by the New Zealand Police, the bulk of any lab-related debris, such as chemicals and containers, is removed. However, contamination may be left on surfaces and in absorbent materials (carpets, furniture), sinks, drains and ventilation systems.
It is safe to ignore claims that the police are finding a new lab every 45 hours. Police dismantled just 77 of such labs last year and 94 in 2012, according to police national headquarters. The most labs busted in a year occurred in 2005, when 211 were found.
Bear in mind that the total number of rental properties in New Zealand is 480,000 while the total number of dwellings is around 1.3 million.
Having established that the incidence of illegal manufacture of P is quite rare, how harmful is it to live in a dwelling where such illegal manufacture has occurred.
The best that Ministry of Health guidelines can say is: “Though often found in small amounts, clandestine methamphetamine laboratory (clan meth lab) contaminants may pose health hazards to people exposed to them” – with the operative word being “may”. (1)
Burns, tissue irritation and rashes can be the consequence of chemical spills and skin contact. Other health effects such as nausea, dizziness and headaches can result from the inhalation of vapours and gases.
A request under the Official Information Act on the numbers of illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths resulting from methamphetamine contamination or fires from P labs shows no record of such hospitalizations, with a note that the collected data does not have any codes to record such hospitalizations.
Burns, tissue irritation, rashes, nausea, dizziness, and headaches may prompt a visit to a doctor. Burns from a clan lab explosion would lead to hospitalization. My OIA request was referred to police to fill in data for clan lab fires and revealed 66 fires since 2004, with 10 each year occurring in 2004, 2006, and 2011.
A seriously over-the-top knee-jerk reaction appears in a report from the Ministry of Health titled Guidelines for the Remediation of Meth Lab Sites.
This report, which is the greatest source of harm to property owners, does note that the guidelines are of an advisory nature only and are not health-based criteria but are set at conservative levels to account for scientific uncertainty.
In the absence of a New Zealand standard, the report cites clean-up standard used by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in California of less than or equal to 1.5 millionths of a gram per square metre. By contrast, the immediately-dangerous-to-life-and-health standard of exposure to hydrochloric acid is 50 parts per million, and that is presumably after ingestion.
Based on the presence in a property of this miniscule amount of a substance that direct contact with which may cause rashes, nausea, dizziness, and headaches, this is what happens:
When police bust a clan lab they notify the local council and a record of the property as a clan lab is placed on the council’s land information memoranda database.
A cleansing order pursuant to the Health Act 1956 will be issued to the owner of the property. Once a certified expert has cleaned the property, meaning the requisition has been complied with, the service request on the council’s database will be updated as completed (closed).
However, the LIM database will always record that a P-lab requisition has been issued against the property in question. The satisfactory completion of any requirements contained in a requisition will merely change the ‘status’ of that requisition, as noted on the LIM.
Also note that insurers do not cover the costs of remediation where there is no actual evidence of chemical residue present. A number of councils have demanded remediation of properties based solely on the presence of clan meth lab material and chemicals without evidence that any cooking has actually occurred at the property.
An eye-watering part of the report may be found in the over-the-top clean-up requirements. Demolition is recommended to ensure “no residual risk” of a miniscule amount of a substance that may trigger a visit to a doctor if directly contacted. This is what is required to ensure “acceptable residual risk”:
Remove carpeting, wallpaper and unpainted gib board.Housing New Zealand demolished a Napier property deemed badly contaminated in 2004 and in 2009 won a test case seeking more than $180,000 in damages from the people who manufactured methamphetamine there.
Remove suspended and attached ceiling tiles.
Spray paint textured ceilings.
Remove upholstered furniture, mattresses, paper items, and other porous contents.
Remove clothing, toys, bedding, baby bottles and cups, and other personal items used by infants and small children.
Dispose of those items in an approved landfill with appropriate acceptance criteria
HEPA vacuum all remaining porous surfaces such as raw wood, brick and cement block.
HEPA vacuum all wood floors and all floors beneath removed carpeting.
Detergent wash all building surfaces twice, rinsing with fresh water.
Spray paint all building surfaces with two coats of a high-quality paint, polyurethane or concrete/brick sealer. (2)
Over-reaction to clan labs is captured in what the report describes as “community perception of risk” (where most people freak out at the mere hint that a property is contaminated) that is not based on technical risk assessment alone, and “outrage at involuntary exposure to hazards not of one’s own making”.
Such fear and alarm, overstatement of risk, panic knee-jerk reaction by local bodies and government agencies, and opportunism by clean-up companies, has combined to create a minefield for property owners. Everybody should take a deep breath until hard scientific data that derives from the New Zealand experience proves that the actual chemical risk is not very great at all.
1. Guidelines for the Remediation of Meth Lab Sites, Ministry of Health. http://www.health.govt.nz/publication/guidelines-remediation-clandestine-methamphetamine-laboratory-sites
2. Ibid, p84