From The New York Times
The spacious home where the newly wed Rhonda and Jason Holt began their family in 2005 was plagued by mysterious illnesses. The Holts’ three babies were ghostlike and listless, with breathing problems that called for respirators, repeated trips to the emergency room and, for the middle child, Anna, the heaviest dose of steroids a toddler can take.
Ms. Holt, a nurse, developed migraines. She and her husband, a factory worker, had kidney ailments.
It was not until February, more than five years after they moved in, that the couple discovered the root of their troubles: their house, across the road from a cornfield in this town some 70 miles south of Nashville, was contaminated with high levels of methamphetamine
left by the previous occupant, who had been dragged from the attic by the police.
The Holts’ next realization was almost as devastating: it was up to them to spend the $30,000 or more that cleanup would require.
With meth lab seizures on the rise nationally for the first time since 2003, similar cases are playing out in several states, drawing attention to the problem of meth contamination, which can permeate drywall, carpets, insulation and air ducts, causing respiratory ailments and other health problems.
Federal data on meth lab seizures suggest that there are tens of thousands of contaminated residences in the United States. The victims include low-income elderly people whose homes are surreptitiously used by relatives or in-laws to make meth, and landlords whose tenants leave them with a toxic mess.
Some states have tried to fix the problem by requiring cleanup and, at the time of sale, disclosure of the house’s history. But the high cost of cleaning — $5,000 to $100,000, depending on the size of the home, the stringency of the requirements and the degree of contamination — has left hundreds of properties vacant and quarantined, particularly in Western and Southern states afflicted with meth use.
“The meth lab home problem is only going to grow,” said Dawn Turner, who started a Web site, www.methlabhomes.com, after her son lost thousands of dollars when he bought a foreclosed home in Sweetwater, Tenn., that turned out to be contaminated. Because less is known about the history of foreclosed houses, Ms. Turner said, “as foreclosures rise, so will the number of new meth lab home owners.”
Meth contamination can bring financial ruin to families like that of Francisca Rodriguez. The family dog began having seizures nine days after the Rodriguezes moved into their home in Grapevine, Tex., near Dallas, and their 6-year-old son developed a breathing problem similar to asthma, said Ms. Rodriguez, 35, a stay-at-home mother of three.
After learning from neighbors that the three-bedroom ranch-style home had been a known “drug house,” the family had it tested. The air ducts had meth levels more than 100 times higher than the most commonly cited limit beyond which cleanup is typically required.
Federal statistics show that the number of clandestine meth labs discovered in the United States rose by 14 percent last year, to 6,783, and has continued to increase, in part because of a crackdown on meth manufacturers in Mexico and in part because of the spread of a new, easier meth-making method known as “shake and bake.”
There are no national standards governing meth contamination. Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to publish cleanup guidelines by the end of 2008, but the agency is still reviewing a draft version. Without standards, professional cleaners say, it is easy to bungle a job that often requires gutting and repeated washing.
The health effects of meth contamination are frequently difficult to prove, and research is scant. But John W. Martyny, a meth expert at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, said living in a former meth lab made children more likely to develop learning disabilities and caused long-term respiratory and skin problems.