Meth labs can leave expensive aftermath
SHIAWASSEE COUNTY – After police raid a methamphetamine lab, many wheels begin turning.
Police begin to collect evidence and conduct interviews to build a case against those operating the lab. Suspects hire lawyers, a number of court
dates are scheduled, and eventually the process potentially climaxes with a jail sentence for the suspected parties.
However, often overlooked in the process is the actual site of the lab.
The cooking of methamphetamine creates hazardous material contamination, and any space that hosts one of these cook sites must be decontaminated in
order to be inhabited again.
According to the Michigan Department of Community Health's Cleanup of Clandestine Drug Laboratory Guidance, the production of methamphetamine can
leave a number of possible contaminants including corrosive chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, sodium hydroxide, anhydrous ammonia
or various other acid and bases; volatile organic chemicals such as acetone, benzene, ether, Freon and methanol; phosphorus, iodine, mercury, lead,
and even remnants of the methamphetamine drug itself.
Because of these chemicals, the health department is forced to step in and condemn any residence that a cook site is found in.
According to Shiawassee County Health Department Director of Environmental Health Larry Johnson, police have 48 hours to notify the health department
of any lab bust, and his department is than forced to condemn the residence.
The condemnation includes an order to vacate the property, the responsibilities of the property owner, and resources to help the owner clean the site.
Once the property is condemned the long, and potentially costly, process of cleaning the site begins for the owner.
According to Johnson, the property owner cannot sell, rent or occupy the property until it is in compliance with state guidelines.
State law requires a preliminary assessment of the cook location be conducted. The preliminary assessment, which is conducted by a third party hired
by the property owner, seeks to identify the extent of the contamination.
Once the level of contamination is known, the homeowner can either choose to hire a professional to begin the cleaning process, or attempt to do it
Dana Rickers, owner of Jenison-based The Clean Source, a company identified by the MDCH as a methamphetamine lab cleanup company, said although the
cleanup process can be costly, it could be even more costly if the property owner attempts to go it alone.
Before condemnation is removed from the property, the newly cleaned cook site must be tested to ensure it meets state standards, a process that can
add up in cost if the home does not pass its initial test.
"It will cost more money in the long run," said Rickers of homeowners who try to decontaminate their own property. "Testing is expensive."
"Most homeowners can't pass the test," she continued.
In order to be accepted by the state, test results must show less than 0.5 micrograms of methamphetamine per 100 square centimeters, less than 40
micrograms of lead per square foot, and less than 1 microgram of mercury per cubic meter, results Rickers said sometimes takes the professionals at
her company weeks to achieve.
The clean up process
The cleanup of an area contaminated by a methamphetamine lab is a long, intricate process. First, before the preliminary assessment begins, the state
recommends the contaminated area be ventilated by using exhaust fans or opening doors and windows to remove any potential volatile organic chemicals
from the air.
Once the preliminary assessment is complete, a cleanup plan can be formulated, and the extensive cleaning process can begin.
Rickers said her crews use a number of detergents, many of which contain sodium peroxide, to clean the sites. She also said her crews power wash the
interior of the home and use scrubbing brushes.
"It's just very involved," Rickers said.
Everything inside of the lab area is assumed to be contaminated, according to the state, and therefore everything must be cleaned or disposed of.
According to State guidelines, any clothing, rugs, curtains, washable cloth items or washable shoes can be decontaminated by double washing with
detergent on the warm or hot cycle in any washing machine.
Clothing items that cannot be washed, such as leather, shoes, woolen, or dry clean only materials, cannot be decontaminated and must be disposed of.
Children's toys such as stuffed animals, any toy that might come in contact with the child's mouth, or any stained or etched toy cannot be
decontaminated and should be disposed of. Metal toys such as bicycles or wagons can be cleaned with detergent and warm water.
Any upholstered fabric or leather furniture or mattress cannot be decontaminated and must be removed.
All carpeting and large rugs must be removed.
In the kitchen, silverware, dishes or cooking instruments can be cleaned. However, any wooden or porous object that comes in contact with food or
objects such as a child's bottle must be disposed of.
Household appliances such as refrigerators and stoves can be cleaned. However, electronic equipment such as televisions and stereos cannot be
decontaminated from the chemicals that seeped into the unsealed casing and must be disposed of.
Any paper items, photographs, books, or magazines cannot be decontaminated and must be disposed of. However, the state does allow an exception
for family memorabilia, legal documents or documents and books of historical value to be saved.
The cleanup process could also lead to extensive deconstruction to the interior of the property.
Ceiling tiles cannot be cleaned so they must be removed.
Painted walls, floors or woodwork can be double washed and saved. However, Rickers said it is highly unlikely that unpainted drywall could be
decontaminated and is usually removed.
Nonporous kitchen countertops can be cleaned, but usually wooden kitchen counters or food preparation areas must be removed. Rickers said wooden
kitchen cabinets could also have to be removed if the contamination is extensive.
Professional cleaning of the site's ventilation system is also required.
Rickers said she usually examines the site's ventilation system to identify if any other areas could be contaminated, a process especially important
in rental units that could share heating or air conditioning.
She also said it is not unusual to have to remove the entire ventilation system and furnace to ensure decontamination.
The site's plumbing and sewage system must also be inspected to determine if a large amount of chemicals associated with the cook site had been
"We do some major, major deconstruction," said Rickers, noting the site is often barren by the time her work is complete.
Large price tag
It's this extensive deconstruction that can also cause cleanup prices for the site owner to sky rocket.
Rickers said it is not unusual for property owners to have to weigh the price of cleanup against the value of the property when determining how to
approach the situation.
"People will pay $35,000 (to clean up) a house, but not for a rental," Rickers said.
She also said 99 percent of property owners don't have the appropriate insurance to cover the cost of cleanup.
According to Rickers, methamphetamine is considered a pollutant and insurance companies usually require homeowners to have pollution liability
insurance for the insurance company to cover the cost to clean the property.
However, Rickers said she usually tries to help the property owners by identifying cleanup tasks the owners could complete on their own, such as the
removal of items that must be disposed of.
Dorothy Stewart knows the extent of these costs first hand.
Stewart and her husband of 63 years, Ken, own the Stewart building at the corner of M-71 and Shiawassee Street in Corunna. Police discovered a
methamphetamine lab in one of the six upstairs apartments last year.
Luckily, the contamination was contained to only one apartment, so the Stewarts were forced to clean just the one unit.
"It was a big pain," said Stewart, who was eventually forced to pay more than $5,000 out of pocket to clean up the property.
However, for the couple, who are both in their 80s, the cleanup could have been much more expensive if not for help they received from their family.
Stewart said her son-in-law helped with the cleanup process by removing items from the apartment and scrubbing the ceiling. Stewart said he had to
clean the ceiling three times.
"It was a huge pain at the time," said Stewart, who also mentioned the cleanup process took nearly four weeks to complete. "It was really a pain
in the neck," Stewart said.
However, now that the property has been cleaned, Stewart said she and her husband have been able to continue to rent out the effected apartment
"Thankfully, they're all occupied," Stewart said of the building's six apartments.