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Wednesday, January 25, 2006 | It’s been two decades since San Diego County was labeled the methamphetamine production capital of the world, but home laboratories used for cooking up the highly addictive drug are still being found in neighborhoods here on an almost weekly basis.
Meth labs remain contaminated with highly toxic chemicals long after the drug dealers have moved out. That poses a danger to anyone who later moves into the home or apartment, and environmental health experts have been worried about the lasting effects of such labs on the well-being of new tenants and owners for many years.
Given the county’s large number of absentee landlords and part-time property managers, officials said, many such laboratories are never reported to the county’s Environmental Health Department. Other abandoned labs are simply rented or sold to new tenants or owners after a superficial cleanup.
But state legislation that went into effect this month requires property owners and managers to red-flag a building as having been used for methamphetamine production. The new laws also require property owners to perform a comprehensive and often costly cleanup of their building. Under the new rules, a building will only be certified as again safe for habitation once an expert has examined it for traces of toxic substances.
“The major effect is to make sure tenants are safe, to make sure kids are safe,” said Nick Vent, a specialist with the county Department of Environmental Health. “The chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine are corrosive, toxic, ignitable, reactive – they meet all the definitions.”
The ingredients used to manufacture meth are, indeed, a noxious bunch, including red phosphorus, which is the primary ingredient in a match head. Also added are hydrochloric acid and a strong acidity neutralizer such as drain cleaner.
The process for manufacturing the drug involves “cooking” a concentration of these chemicals. That cooking gives off dangerous fumes that permeate the surrounding walls and floors. It also results in a strong acidic mixture that is highly corrosive and is often spilled. The leftover acid is so corrosive that environmental health officers have burned holes in their protective suits while walking around abandoned labs.
The red phosphorus is also a big problem. Vent said he knows of one case where a cache of phosphorus was buried in a back yard, undiscovered – a disaster waiting to happen. Ten years later, a new owner, who didn’t know the property’s history, decided to put in a new patio.
“He’s out there with his shovel and his pick to level out the ground, and he has 100 square feet of his back yard light up on fire,” Vent said.
Those familiar with the smell of an abandoned meth lab say it is hard to forget.
It’s a strong, sticky smell of chemicals and burned paint, a smell that drug enforcement agents and environmental health experts said is instantly recognizable. Special Agent Misha Piastro of the Drug Enforcement Agency in San Diego described the smell as simply “dangerous.”
But even the heady stench of cooking meth dissipates over time, and a property that has been used as a lab for making the drug is easily disguised with a few well-placed licks of paint. What that redecoration does not hide, however, are the highly toxic and cancer-causing agents that have soaked into the building’s plasterboard, carpets and furniture while the meth was being produced. Those dangerous substances pose a very real risk to anybody inheriting that building even years later.
“I’ve seen several cases where people are using their stoves, they use the broiler pan on the stove to dry the methamphetamine out – how would you like your steak broiled with a seasoning of meth?” Vent said.
A bill that passed through the state Legislature last year is aimed at property managers and landlords who have, in the past, tried to skirt doing a proper cleanup of a former meth lab. However, these labs aren’t as prevalent as they used to be. Vent estimates that his department looks at about 30 labs a year these days compared to 300 labs a year in the mid-’80s.
The bill requires any such labs to be reported to a local health officer, whether by law enforcement or by a property manager or owner. The health officer would be responsible for determining whether the property is contaminated and would issue an order prohibiting the property from being lived in. The property owner is then obliged by the act to immediately vacate any contaminated areas in the building and retain a contractor to remove any contamination from the site.
That often involves tearing out the walls, floors and ceilings of the affected property. That’s not cheap and, in essence, is exactly the point of the new law.
Daniel Skiles, project manager for the East County Community Change Project and an advocate for drug- and crime-free housing in San Diego, said there’s nothing better to focus a landlord’s attention on a problem than a $10,000 cleanup bill.
That’s particularly important when you consider that certain “problem properties” are often targeted by drug dealers time and time again, specifically because of the lackadaisical approach of their property managers. Properties that already have other in-built problems such as poor maintenance and bad management will have to shake up their act, Skiles said.
“You’d better pay better attention, you can’t just be an absentee landlord and just collect the rent and not care what’s going on in your place any more,” Skiles said.
Asked to comment on the new laws, property management companies from Pacific Beach to La Mesa said they had simply never laid eyes on a meth lab. They just don’t come across this problem, they said.
But Larry Hayes, who owns and manages properties from San Diego to Northern California, said he’s had to deal with cleaning up a few meth labs in his time. He said any property manager worth their salt has been doing proper cleanups on any such buildings for many years.
“We go in and rip the walls out and basically take everything out of the unit down to the commodes and redo it, just to be safe and make darn sure,” Hayes said.
“Liability is our number one enemy in this business,” he added.
Bryan Garrie, an attorney who specializes in construction defect litigation, said the threat of liability has meant that most landlords have been sure to properly clean up any building that has been used for producing meth. He said that there has been a common law obligation – an obligation based on previous cases but not laid out in statute – for any landlord to do so for a long time.
Nevertheless, Garrie said that codifying this obligation into a statute can only be a positive step for the real estate business.
“There is a definite psychological benefit to making it a statute,” Garrie said. “It will make landlords more vigilant.”
Vent also pointed out that, once a property has been labeled as a former meth production site, that branding sticks with the property, regardless of how well it is cleaned up. The paperwork referring to the cleanup operation remains in the property’s title documents, effectively naming and shaming it for ever.
As such, having a meth lab in a property is analogous to having a serious mold or termite problem. Once that problem has been found, it’s going to be hard for a property owner to shake off its effects.
“This could very easily become a major thing, as it probably should,” said Vent.
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