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Meth Contamination: The Truth Behind The Hype

A combination of media hype and a lack of regulation mean the meth testing industry is full of suspicion, cowboys and conflicts of interest. Joanna Jefferies delves into the issues and reveals what every landlord needs to know.

By: Joanna Jefferies

1 August 2016

The media hype around the contamination of homes with methamphetamine has reached fever pitch and the confusion around the largely unregulated meth-testing and remediation industry is fuelling the hysteria.

While reliable data isn’t available on the number of contaminated homes in New Zealand, figures of as much as 40% positive test results have been bandied about in news articles regarding the contamination of homes. Housing New Zealand’s data shows 688 of its properties tested positive for meth between June 1, 2015, and May 27, 2016 – a 200% increase compared with the previous financial year. It begs the question: is this problem as wide-reaching as these figures suggest?

Envirocheck’s general manager David Kilburn says that to apply the high figures contaminated in Housing NZ properties to New Zealand’s housing stock would create an exaggerated view, as the testing of homes suspected as contaminated means a higher proportion of homes tested will return a positive result.

Kilburn says Envirocheck’s own data showed late last year that 18% of houses tested were contaminated. A year later, between 20% and 25% of properties are returning a positive result, but he puts this down to landlords having more testing carried out, revealing many incidences of low levels of historic meth contamination. He says there is no distinction in his data between homes routinely tested before a house sale, or in between tenancies, for example, as opposed to those dwellings suspected as contaminated.

“Once landlords get to the stage where they are keeping on top of [testing between tenancies], I don’t think the levels will be anything like they are currently,” Kilburn says.

Meth-testing company MethXpert NZ, echoes similar proportions of positive test results. Director Simon Fleming says: “We are seeing 20% of houses [testing positive]. Is that due to us going into high risk houses? Probably.”

Glasshouse Property Management director Jeremy Baker says over 50 properties of the Hamilton company’s portfolio have been professionally tested in 2016 – the majority between tenancies – and around 5% have tested positive for methamphetamine contamination. He says these results may be indicative of the true proportion of houses affected.

“The numbers aren’t anywhere near as bad as we are being told. It’s not one in three houses – it may be one in 20 – but when you do have a problem it’s really tricky stuff and you have got to do the right thing in the right order,” Baker says.

The numbers aren't anywhere near as bad as we are being told. It's not one in three houses - it may be one in 20. But when you do have a problem it's really tricky stuff and you have got to do the right thing in the right order - Jeremy Baker

Cowboys, Conflicts of Interest

Kilburn says the industry has exploded over the past year and believes many contractors have little expertise in the area. He is “horrified about the people coming into our industry”.

The lack of regulation around who can test, regulating of testing and remediation methodologies, Kilburn believes, is creating opportunities for unscrupulous individuals.

He says there needs to be transparency within the industry and that all meth testers or remediating staff need to be police-vetted due to the nature of contaminated sites.

“We often find drugs on site and occasionally large sums of cash,” Kilburn says.

Testing Methodology

Testing methodology for the remediation of clandestine methamphetamine laboratory sites is clearly set out under the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) 2010 guidelines. In the absence of guidelines for sites where ‘residual’ or ‘trace’ levels of methamphetamine are detected – where meth use, or historic use is likely, rather than manufacture – meth testers are applying the ‘cooking’ guideline’s methodology and the maximum acceptable level of contamination of 0.5 micrograms of methamphetamine per 100cm2 of surface area.

Tests should be carried out on wipe samples according to the NIOSH method 9111 testing criteria – a method that outlines strict criteria around the methodology of testing – but without anyone regulating the testers, “a sampler can go in and deliberately target an area which is likely to have the highest reading in a room,” Kilburn says.

Elevated readings can occur when samples are taken from:

  • Surfaces coated with polyurethane.
  • Horizontal planes such as windowsills.
  • High ‘finger traffic’ areas on walls.
  • Areas with dust on the surface.
  • Porous or absorbent surfaces such as carpet, timber or ceiling tiles.
  • Heat and static conductors such as light switches and power points.

When Does It Go On The Lim?

Fleming says that unless the Police become involved in investigating a suspected ‘meth lab’, then the council will not be notified of a contamination, and there will be no record of a contamination on a LIM, regardless of a positive test from a meth-testing company.

Meth-testing companies are not currently obliged to notify councils around suspected clandestine labs; it falls on the testing company’s ethics.

Most councils have policies around recording a methamphetamine lab’s contamination on LIMs – after which when a home has been decontaminated, ‘satisfied’ will appear on the LIM. Some councils are, however, applying the same process when they are notified of lower levels of meth contamination – associated with meth use – in the absence of legislation.

Kilburn says the lack of regulation around council protocol for registering contaminated homes means councils are approaching the issue independently.

Recently he was called to give advice to a legal team advising a council (he chooses not to name) on meth contamination. He says they gave him an example of a new home that had a contamination level below MOH guidelines. The council’s legal team made the recommendation to record the contamination on the LIM, despite the fact that the property had a level of 0.3mg/100cm2 and the fact it had been certified as decontaminated.

“We are talking trace levels of methamphetamine,” Kilburn says. “We are talking single figures of grains of sugar being dissolved in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”

Conversely, Bay of Plenty property manager Jane Harvey* says she approached the Police and her local council to get advice on a property she manages that had received a result of 3.8mg/100cm2 – nearly eight times the MOH acceptable level – and “neither was interested.”

Tenancy Agreements

Scotney Williams, director of Tenancy Practice Services and MethTesting NZ says landlords are vulnerable if their tenancy agreement does not provide for meth testing during tenancies.

“Contractually landlords should be permitted to do a meth test if they have to, during a tenancy,” says Williams.

He says including a meth testing clause in the tenancy agreement – reserving the right to test during and between tenancies – is now prudent.

The other conditional clause Williams believes should be included in tenancy agreements is one that prevents new tenants from claiming against the landlord should the rental test positive between tenancies.

“What’s been happening with lots of landlords and property managers is they’ve been doing tests, arranging [new] tenants for the property and the meth test comes back positive five days before they move in,” Williams says. “This can increase the costs and generally be a hassle for both landlords and tenants.” The ‘meth’ clause should stipulate that the tenancy is conditional on the property passing a meth test. Should a test come back with a result higher than 0.5mg/100cm2, the tenant would have the option to go ahead once the house was remediated should they wish. This clause is designed to prevent the landlord from having to pay the tenant’s relocating and accommodation costs in the event of a positive test.

Williams says if the test comes back with trace levels below MOH guidelines the tenant still has the right to walk away.

"We've heard from clients that the Tenancy Tribunal is finding that below 0.5mg/100cm2 is not ‘reasonably clean and tidy’ in terms of the Residential Tenancies Act. The tenant has the right to consent, or not consent to taking the property with trace amounts below 0.5."

Insurance Woes

Many property managers now recommend landlords should have all properties meth tested between tenancies, which throws up some tricky insurance cover questions.

Proving that the current tenant has caused methamphetamine contamination to a property is only certain if a result from a test performed by an independent tester before the beginning of the tenancy is negative.

Baker says it’s important to use professional testers for this reason as insurance companies and the Tenancy Tribunal may disregard DIY kit tests or tests performed by unqualified testers or such individuals as property managers who have an interest in the property.

Very few insurance companies still offer full cover for methamphetamine contamination, because of the potential for huge remediation bills, and some policies only cover low amounts or have no cover at all.

“There’s been a very big volume of claims this year compared to last year so a lot of the insurers are tightening up,” Baker says.

Hamilton investor Nancy Caiger says she became aware of the limitations of insurance cover when she went to sell a rental property in September 2015 and a purchaser’s meth test came back with a positive result in the main bedroom.

Caiger paid for testing which cost $1,725. The decontamination of the room cost $3470 which involved removing the carpet and the Pinex ceilings (both considered highly absorbent and difficult to clean with spray); cleaning the walls and the removal of lights and light fittings. The ceiling was replaced, walls and ceiling were painted; new lights, light fittings and carpet were installed. The total cost for the bedroom to receive a clear test was $7,850.

Caiger’s insurance covered this cost, less the excess and she says the buyer continued with the purchase.

“As soon as I put my claim in, the insurance company asked to look at all the [property] inspection reports and all the tenant selection documents.” Caiger’s property manager was able to produce all the documentation including credit checks and reference reports on the tenant.

“This is something that people need to be aware of if they are managing their own properties,” she says.

Caiger’s insurance policy covered her for up to $25,000 of meth damage, but she now sees this level of cover as problematic. “$25,000 would have covered three bedrooms, but if I had had a whole house contaminated…”

Baker says thorough tenant checks are crucial in ensuring insurance policies will cover damage.

Meth testing between tenancies is also crucial in holding a tenant liable for damage caused by methamphetamine. Glasshouse Property Management now has a policy in place stipulating all rentals will be tested between tenancies (with landlord permission). Baker, however, doesn’t recommend random testing of properties.

“Obviously if you have got a reason to suspect something, you are morally obligated to test that house, but I wouldn’t recommend people with big portfolios going through and testing every single one of them during the current tenancies because you are likely to create issues for yourself.”

Meth Regulations To Come

“It’s been the established players in this industry who have been calling for legislation,” Kilburn says. He believes the lack of legal parameters around testing and remediation is creating opportunities for those who want to make a ‘quick buck’.

“There needs to be clarification around the [MOH minimum] levels and what they mean,” Baker says. “It needs to actually be a rule.”

“There needs to be regulation around testing and methodology. There also needs to be separation between testing and remediation.”

Guidelines are currently being developed by Standards New Zealand for testing and remediation of methamphetaminecontaminated properties.

“As far as we’re concerned [new regulations] can’t come soon enough,” Kilburn says.

Spotting Meth Use Or Manufacture In A Rental

  • Changes in behaviour of long-term tenants.
  • Large amounts of chemicals: “If they have tonnes of fertiliser and they don’t do the garden, then that’s a red flag,” Jeremy Baker says.
  • Red or chemical staining on carpets, bath tubs and sinks.
  • Displays of money not consistent with earnings.
  • Security cameras.
  • Blacking out windows.
  • Visitors at all times of the day and night.

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