Home Toxic Home?
Soon they'd be doing everything to get out of it. In June 2002, two weeks after moving in, the Needhams began to have baffling physical problems. Cindy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, saw the return of long-dormant symptoms—muscle spasms and twitching. Kent broke out in excruciating blisters. "We joked," Cindy says, "that he was allergic to the house."
It was no gag when a neighbor revealed their home's dark past: The seller, David Lewis, had used the house as a laboratory to produce methamphetamine, a drug now sweeping America. Known for its intense highs, meth can quickly transform casual users into junkies with symptoms ranging from rotten teeth to paranoia, increasing their risk of heart attack, stroke and liver damage. Meth is also easily made—with pseudoephedrine, an ingredient common in some over-the-counter cold medicines, household chemicals like iodine and a cooktop stove or hot plate. Toxic substances that in large amounts can cause cardiac arrest and lung damage [see box] permeate the house when meth is cooked, then seep into walls, floorboards and carpeting. The resulting contamination can last for years.
The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates 35 percent of the nation's meth supply is manufactured domestically, including thousands of mom-and-pop labs, often in private dwellings. The result: Untold families who bought homes in recent years live in former meth labs. Some, upon discovering their homes were filled with residue from acetone, red phosphorus and other toxic agents, have fled, losing their investment and a life's worth of treasured possessions. Others have stayed but live in fear, convinced that the chemical leftovers from the meth-making process are responsible for a host of health woes.
Scientifically, the verdict is out on whether these concerns are justified. As yet, there is no proven link between living in an ex meth lab and specific health problems; few studies have been done, and conclusive results may take years. "It takes a pretty hefty exposure to make you sick," says an unconvinced George Gray, executive director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, adding that other factors—say, psychological or occupational—might play a role in some cases.
Still, what is known is worrisome. Though a high-tech clean-up should eliminate a lot of the risk, "I absolutely wouldn't want to move my family into an ex meth lab," says Shawn Arbuckle, an industrial hygiene program coordinator at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver and a leading researcher on the impact of home meth-cooking. Potential long-term risks, he says, include damage to the lungs, liver and kidneys and cancer. At greatest risk, he says, are people with existing medical conditions and young children, where exposure over time "could really mess up their developing brains."
Health was just one of the Needhams' worries. Because the residue gets into carpets, walls and ceilings, it is hard to remove and can cost tens of thousands of dollars to clean up. Just a test of their home, which was done by an environmental-contracting firm and confirmed the contamination, cost the Needhams $2,600. Much of what they owned had to be discarded. Then there were the priceless boxes of photos, family heirlooms, their daughters' childhood art-work. All were contaminated, and the Needhams, wearing rubber gloves, sealed them in plastic. "We'll never be able to touch them again," Cindy says. "But I couldn't throw them out."
There was some good news: When the couple moved out of the house and into a rental home, their symptoms subsided almost immediately. But double house payments and other expenses threatened to plunge them into bankruptcy. All of which left the Needhams feeling angry and betrayed. "If we'd had all the information, we would never have bought the house," Cindy says. "But do you think someone cooking meth in their kitchen is going to tell you the house is toxic?"
Until recently, in fact, there was little protection for buyers. So far only a few states including South Dakota, Oklahoma and Oregon, require dis-closure to an owner that the home was a meth lab. At least seven other states are considering similar measures, and several have established guidelines for home meth-cleanup. It remains to be seen how the new laws will impact public safety. "If we want to absolutely guarantee the safety of any dwelling that had been a meth lab, we'd burn it to the ground," says Deborah Durkin, environmental research specialist with the Minnesota Department of Health.
The Pruchniks of Eden Prairie, Minn., wish they had known. Polish-born Zbigniew, 63, a U.S. resident since 1988, and Galina, 57, who emigrated from Minsk in 1992, were thrilled to find a townhouse in the leafy Minneapolis suburb. It needed work, but Zbigniew, a hotel maintenance man, is more than handy. For five months he labored, sleeping on an air mattress on the living room carpet, scrubbing walls, pulling carpet and removing loads of debris. Says his wife of 12 years, an office clerk: "We thought we would live there forever—that we were finally settled in America."
Instead, their peace of mind was shattered. On April 27, 2002, their first night together in the new home, Zbigniew suffered a heart attack. He recovered, but a cascade of complaints followed—a painful liver infection, stomach distress and a diabetes diagnosis. Whether there was a cause-and-effect relationship is unclear, but earlier this year a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune called to say she'd learned from arrest records that the Pruchniks' home was a former meth lab. The owner lived in another state, and an intruder had broken in and started making the drug; the lab was discovered by a caretaker and reported to the police. It wasn't entirely a shock. "A neighbor had said people had made drugs here," Zbigniew recalls. "We didn't understand the danger." The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency inspected the house and, according to the report by researcher Kate Gaynor, found meth residue "in many areas" but said Zbigniew's renovations actually eliminated significant contamination. The Pruchniks can't afford to pay for a cleanup, but Gaynor hopes her agency can do it, funded by a grant. In the meantime, says Galina, "I love this house, but I'm scared to live here."
Fear was the last thing Katrina and Brian Evans had on their mind when they moved with their three girls into a $265,000, four-bedroom house in Fort Collins, Colo., in April 2003. It needed exterior work but had space for Katrina's home daycare business and land to build a second garage for Brian, who worked in auto repair and had a passion for restoring old cars. "The house was awesome—a huge accomplishment," Katrina says. For a year life was good: Katrina's business blossomed, and Brian was ready to branch out on his own. They could afford special medical insurance for youngest daughter Taylor, 11, who has scoliosis and spina bifida and needs frequent surgeries.
Then, on April 8, 2004, the bottom fell out: A local reporter called and informed the Evanses their house was on a Larimer County Sheriff's Web site listing former meth labs. Frantic and confused, Katrina called a long list of health agencies asking for guidance. "I couldn't get any answers," she says. "I felt like I was in that Erin Brockovich movie." Katrina began to suspect that some health problems her family had experienced during the year might have been meth-related. Brookelyn, 16, had her bedroom in the basement—site of the former lab—and suffered migraines shortly after moving in. Also, chronic nosebleeds, for which she'd undergone corrective surgery in October 2001, came back in the new house. Brian removed a piece of PVC pipe in the basement and his arm broke out in a rash. "Later, while I was doing research on meth labs," Katrina says, "it all started to make sense."
Unable to guarantee the safety of the toddlers she watched—parents began pulling their children from her daycare after Katrina informed them of the meth-lab listing—she shut her center down. They couldn't afford a cleanup, so the Evanses moved into a rental house. Whether or not their home caused their health problems, Katrina and Brian—childhood sweethearts—believe the stress ruined their marriage. Last August they decided to divorce; the next month, they filed for bank-ruptcy. They have sued seller Randy Jensen and the real estate firm, claiming they knew a prior occupant had run the meth lab. "I at no point had any idea or knowledge there was anything like that on the property," Jensen says, "if there even was." A trial is a year off, and Katrina says she and the girls are struggling: "We went from a $300,000 home to being on food stamps."
For the Needhams, at least, the scales tipped their way. As part of a plea bargain for convicted meth chef Lewis, who served four months in prison, his father made restitution; Butte Community Bank, the Needhams' mortgage holder, had frozen their account until then, saving them from foreclosure and preserving their excellent credit. Meanwhile, the couple joined with their real estate agent Judy Pepper (who was also unaware of the lab) to pressure state and federal lawmakers to mandate disclosure of meth houses. Their state assemblyman, Rick Keene, has proposed just such a bill. "Something good has to come out of all this," Cindy Needham says of their ordeal. "It could all be so easily avoided."
Richard Jerome. Jason Bane in Fort Collins, Maureen Harrington in Chico, Margaret Nelson in Eden Prairie and John Perra in Washington, D.C.
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