In June this year Police seized $448 million of meth in Northland, the largest seizure of its kind in New Zealand. It surpassed all of the previous years’ seizures combined and bought attention to the growing problem of meth use in New Zealand. Recently we found the problem hitting home for us when we entered the property market.
We were looking to sell our house as it was time to upgrade to a larger place for the kids. We put an offer on a house across town in an affordable suburb, which created a multi-offer situation between ourselves and another buyer. Unfortunately for us, the other offer was accepted. While looking at another house with the same real estate agent, she stopped to answer her phone. She was informed that the previous house had been put through a drug test by the other buyer, and failed due to meth contamination. It was a shock, both for us and the agent.
Looking back, there were a few warning signs for possible drug contamination – it was an ex-rental and recently done up – but we weren’t in the mindset of looking for those, or even thinking it could affect us. Both manufacture of the drug in a property or personal use of the drug by previous inhabitants causes very harmful residues to be left behind. As meth becomes a larger problem in New Zealand, more houses are becoming contaminated from the drug. In this environment, many home buyers are getting precautionary testing done… just in case.
What is meth?
Methamphetamine (meth for short) is part of the amphetamine family of drugs which act as central nervous system stimulants. In New Zealand it’s commonly called ‘P’, short for pure. Because of its strength and addictiveness, it’s a Class A controlled substance in New Zealand. Therefore attracts the highest penalties for manufacture, trafficking, sale and use.
Many of the chemicals used to synthesise it are highly corrosive and dangerous. Police estimate that producing one kilogram creates seven kilograms of toxic by-product. This by-product can contaminate surroundings.
Even smoking in a house can contaminate surfaces. The crystal form of the drug vapourises and the vapour then reforms into crystals on surfaces such as walls and furniture. If you touch these surfaces, the crystals can be ingested through the skin or be accidently transferred to your mouth, nose or eyes. Babies are especially vulnerable, from having a smaller body size and from putting things in their mouths often.
Health effects of being in a contaminated house
Meth is taken, one has to assume, for its desired effects. Feelings of euphoria and excitement, increased energy, confidence and motivation, feelings of power and superiority over others, and increased libido. But it’s use also has numerous and serious health effects. These include anxiety, agitation and panic, paranoia and hallucinations, hostility and aggression, difficulty sleeping, increased heart rate and blood pressure, psychosis, brain damage, memory loss, poor skin condition, susceptibility to infection and disease due to reduced immunity, increased risk of stroke, increased risk of heart attack, damage to kidneys and risk of kidney failure.
The health effects of coming into contact with meth contaminated surfaces do not appear to be as well studied as the first-hand effects of the drug, but potential symptoms include:
• shortness of breath
To avoid such symptoms, houses where meth has been produced, or even used, can be extensively cleaned and detoxified.
How to screen for a P House
According to a report in the NZ Herald, Kirk Hardy chief executive of the Drug Detection Agency said there were several signs that a house could have been used as a P-lab:
• Chemical odours and dead vegetation around a section
• Elaborate CCTV systems
• Visible stains on curtains, walls and ceilings
• Waste including empty medicine packaging, paint thinner containers and coffee filters with white or red powdery substances
While this is good advice I think it’s more likely the case that these would be cleaned up before putting such a property on the market. In such a case Hardy advised would-be home owners to door knock on the neighbours to check on the background of the people who previously lived there, “Neighbours will tell you a lot of information that real estate agents won’t.”
A drug test on a house can be included as part of the formal pre-purchase property inspection while buying a property or it can be done on its own. The costs for such a test can be high however.
How to Clean a P House
In New Zealand there’re no formal standards for cleaning up a contaminated house, nor for what a safe level of contamination actually is. The Ministry of Health produced guidelines in 2010, but these don’t explicitly state what amount of residue in a house is safe for humans. However, the levels suggested in the guidelines should produce no adverse health effects for most people.
After research by Fair Go, the Ministry of Health confirmed that its guidelines were developed for cleaning up sites where meth was manufactured. It did not include homes where there are traces from smoking meth. Such traces, argues Massey University toxicologist Dr Nick Kim as reported by Fair Go, may not even be harmful. “You’d have to be about 20 times higher than the meth clean-up guideline before you hit the lowest plausible point at which you might expect or could get a health effect in a toddler who’s crawling around all the time”. Ultimately, each person must decide for themselves what an acceptable level of meth residue in a property is.
Various businesses have popped up in New Zealand to offer cleaning services. But the bottom line is that testing and detoxification can cost a heck of lot. Up to tens of thousands of dollars. However the potential health effects of a family being inadvertently exposed to a contaminated house may be worth such expenses.
We didn’t hear the outcome of the buyer of the house we placed an offer on. We don’t know if they decided to get the house cleaned or if they pulled out of the purchase. But having your family exposed to any level of meth contamination is quite a scary thought for many New Zealanders.
Have you had any experience with meth contamination in a property you have been involved with? Let us know in the comments below or over on our Facebook page.
Max is the Father of two young children, a small business owner, and a student studying a Bachelor of Business Studies at Massey University. He also writes online at obstaclemethod.movementunleashed.com