Clean up after meth head?
August 8, 2011 11:47 AM   Subscribe

Is it safe to rent out an apartment where meth was used but was never a meth lab? Will due diligence cleaning and painting be enough?

My brother is buying a building with a rental unit that was inhabited by a guy who was a meth user and seller, but did not have a lab on premises. He will thoroughly clean and repaint the unit and adjoining unit but has some concerns about drug residue. The professional services that offer clean up are often involved in total rehab of properties that were formally labs. The rep from the Crime Scene Clean Up company said that if methamphetamines are smoked on the premises it may require professional mediation. Is this true? It is an expensive prospect and might make any purchase of real estate used by methamphetamine users prohibitively expensive to rehab. Has anyone had experience with this before?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Disclaimer: I am not a crime scene cleanup tech, a meth user or anything in between. However, my inner voice of reason calls bullshit on the need for "professional mediation". Let's think about this: 1. We don't know if methamphetamine leaves any dangerous residue on household surfaces, even when smoked by the bushel. 2. Even SUPER-DUPER dangerous substances - nerve gases, for instance! - do not usually penetrate SO deeply into surfaces so as to render them uncleanable via a civilian. 3. Unless there are OBVIOUS globs of meth-residue streaking the walls, then you can pretty much assume that you are dealing with a contaminated surface which is a few micrometers thick, if it even exists.

Personally? I'd get a good respirator. I'd scrub the walls with TSP or an equivalent. I'd clean everything else with dilute bleach water or an equivalent. I'd go over the entire place with a fine-toothed comb to make sure no meth-paraphernalia was secreted in the walls or under the floorboards. And then I'd feel as though my own personal due diligence was DONE.
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:07 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, if your brother wishes to know how the big guys decontaminate sullied surfaces, section H of this document is pretty fascinating:
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:08 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are no national regs on meth-lab clean-up in the US, but there are voluntary guidelines published by the EPA, published two years ago. Here's some practical advice that may also be helpful.

From the EPA Guidelines:
Cooking vs. Smoking

Studies have shown (direct PDF link to study) that the smoking of meth alone can produce levels of airborne meth that may result in a general contamination of the structure in which it is smoked (although contamination levels will depend upon how much meth was smoked and the smoker’s technique). While EPA intends these guidlines to apply to structures in which meth was manufactured or “cooked,” and while it is not EPA’s intent to imply that municipalities, counties and states should require cleanup at sites where meth was smoked, the voluntary guidelines contained in this document may be useful for cleaning up all sites contaminated by meth. However, the remediation process described in this document accounts for the possibility that precursor chemicals, in addition to meth, may be present in the structure.
I'd intrepret it as a possible concern. It's impossible to say how bad it is without an on-site evaluation. There may be no real problem, or it might require removal of some of the surfaces.

To assure himself and potential renters, he may want to commision wipe tests of various surfaces as a condition of sale. As you say though, that can be expensive.
posted by bonehead at 12:08 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

A pro cleaning may not be strictly speaking necessary, but will certainly help as a 'selling feature'. There's such a stigma surrounding meth, a pro cleaning maybe necessary on that score alone. Facts or reason may not enter into it.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:09 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Surely the building inspector will have the final say on what is required.
posted by desjardins at 12:10 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

The rep from the Crime Scene Clean Up company said that if methamphetamines are smoked on the premises it may require professional mediation.

So, what you're saying is that a salesman told you that you need a service that their company conveniently provides.

That having been said, it does appear that just smoking meth can leave residue in a greater concentration than your state's law may allow.
posted by deadmessenger at 12:12 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are some State regulations, it appears, linked to in the EPA document above. There are no national ones, particularly for smoking only. The building inspector may or may not have anything to go on.
posted by bonehead at 12:13 PM on August 8, 2011

I would be more concerned the old tenant might be showing up to the building at all hours than I would be about residue.
posted by phunniemee at 12:17 PM on August 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

You know how cigarette smoke residue tends to cling to the insides of homes no matter what? To the walls, floors, inside floorboards, anything porous? And then you can strip and seal with primer but sometimes it still leeches out if the air is moist after a good storm? And how a child or a puppy will chew on a windowsill or molding, like they do?

I'd never in good conscience rent a living space that had smoke residue of any kind, but especially not meth smoke residue. He can, but would you he able to sleep at night?
posted by juniperesque at 12:50 PM on August 8, 2011

You can't smoke meth the way people smoke cigarettes: 18 hours a day. A sealing primer will absolutely cover smoke residue, it's just there are so many other places that cigarette smoke accumulates because it can totally permeate an apartment occupied by one or several heavy smokers.

The issue of "meth" residue is moral panic driven by the very real dangers of meth labs (due to the chemicals involved in amateur meth manufacture and improper disposal.) If there was no meth lab then I would treat this like any other apartment inhabited by someone who may not have taken good care of the place. Definitely repaint (for the inevitable cigarette smoking), replace carpets and double check maintenance issues, make sure there isn't any garbage/damage hidden away somewhere.... and sleep well at night.
posted by at 1:10 PM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Has he talked to his county or regional environmental health office? That's where I'd suggest starting. They may have a program in place, or at least someone he can talk to to get a better idea about this. (Disclaimer: I am an environmental professional, but I do not specialize in meth cleanups.)

If for whatever reason he does need/decide to abate, step one is finding out what's actually at the property. Without knowing that, there's no way to know how much abatement is actually necessary and how much it could cost.

I'd suggest contacting several reputable firms for sampling costs -- don't tell them you're doing the abatement, just sampling to figure out if you have a problem. And make sure you agree on a standard to compare the results to before the sampling actually happens. If your state doesn't have a standard, they should be able to suggest a safety-based standard, perhaps one from another state.
posted by pie ninja at 1:24 PM on August 8, 2011

I have to respectfully disagree with, mainly because the smoke particulate from meth smoke isn't substantively different or "safer" than residue from a meth lab when in high enough quantity. It's true that meth smokers don't smoke 18 hours a day like some cigarette smokers do, but the level of toxicity of a space inhabited by a meth smoker can meet or exceed the level of toxicity of a lab. Hotels run into this problem a lot. Here's an article about it from the Denver Post: Meth Smoke Taints Motels. Here's one from Utah: Landlords Face Nightmare of a Problem.

Those chemicals are in that unit, could be at levels as high as those in a meth lab, and if the building shares an HVAC or any other centralized utility system, I'd worry about that, too.
posted by juniperesque at 1:29 PM on August 8, 2011

Does your brother know for sure that the tenant ingested his meth by smoking it? My understanding is that people generally stick to their preferred delivery method (snorting, smoking, or injection). If this previous tenant guy was not a smoker then there's probably nothing wrong with the apartment.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:42 PM on August 8, 2011

Yeah, nthing phunnimee in that the former customers/rival dealers of the previous tenant would worry me far more.
posted by elizardbits at 2:44 PM on August 8, 2011

I'm sorry but from the first article:
The airborne residue from smoked meth is not considered as dangerous because the residue does not contain all the chemicals from a "cook."

Which is reasonable because many of those hazardous chemicals are volatile. Your statement that meth smoke is as dangerous as a meth lab is just flat out wrong:
The noxious mix of chemicals - acetone, anhydrous ammonia, starter fluid, paint thinner and red phosphorous - that goes into making the stimulant drug creates a known health hazard. Inhalation or skin exposure to those chemicals can cause burns, breathing problems and neurological difficulties.

The second article is an example of what happens when you are a slum lord and the police have to deal with a public nuisance. Utah may have insane laws about "meth residue" but they have insane laws about other things too. You'll note that several of the "dangerous" components in the meth lab are commonly availlable chemicals used in farming, painting, nail polish. The difference is when you are using gallons of them with reckless disregard for safety, but guess what...

All of these things are in your environment, in your apartment, on your painted nails, etc. etc. Live in a farming area, bet there's a crap load of anhydrous ammonia floating around too. I mean, acetone or (even worse) xylene is an ingredient in water-based latex paint (among other toxic chemicals): repainting the apartment is exposing your tenants to a stew of hazardous chemicals. This isn't to say that toxic chemicals in your home are great or harmless, it's just that the fear of "meth smoke" is way out of proportion to the problem and confuses the real problem of dealing with the aftermath of someone essentially dumping gallons of hazardous chemicals (which happens for other reasons than just meth.) Again, the stringent laws about residue are about controlling the proliferation of home labs in the West, not about safety per se.

Methamphetamine is not a deadly poison; methyl-ethyl-ketone is. Honestly, it sounds to me like the "meth clean-up" operations are running a shakedown of landlords and the cops are happy to cooperate just to punish the slum lords who let people run labs and deal with impunity. I would be wary of even contacting a clean-up operation.

If you like, you can read this article about cleaning up a full-on meth lab:
Determine if the property was used for meth production.
Air out the property before and during cleanup.
Remove all unnecessary items and dispose of them.
Remove visibly contaminated items or items that have an odor.
Clean all surfaces using household cleaning methods and proper personal protection.
Clean the ventilation system.
Leave plumbing cleaning up to the experts.
Air out the property for three to five days.
If odor or staining remains, have your home evaluated by a professional
Most of these things are what you would do after a particularly shitty tenant moves out anyway. Again, I would be more worried about psychotic damage (strange holes, disassembled utilities) or garbage/drug paraphernalia hidden in weird places. Or, perhaps more importantly, addicts dropping by the address hoping to buy.
posted by at 3:01 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that, given your knowledge of meth use on the property, you can totally dismiss the possibility that meth was also manufactured there at some point. Labs are pretty portable these days (Methland discusses bike-based labs, which, eesh).

If you have a lot of knowledge about the situation and trust the meth-using former tenant, then, ok. But do you trust the meth-using former tenant?
posted by charmcityblues at 3:46 PM on August 8, 2011

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