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So, You Moved Into a Meth Lab

You and your husband are regular 9-to-5 types with a kid named Joel. You move to a regular 9-to-5 type suburb where the rent is manageable and the neighbours seem nice. Then Joel starts getting sick. His skin breaks out and he coughs at night. Soon you...

Photos courtesy of Jena Dyco International

You and your husband are regular 9-to-5 types with a kid named Joel. You move to a regular 9-to-5 type suburb where the rent is manageable and the neighbours seem nice. Then Joel starts getting sick. His skin breaks out and he coughs at night. Soon you get headaches and feel exhausted and something is wrong but you can’t figure out what. Later, after all the testing for gas leaks and mould infestations, someone mentions meth labs and it clicks. The coffee coloured stains in the laundry, the crystalline film over the range hood, the omnipresent scent of ammonia. Your house is a former meth lab and you’re getting sick from the residue.


This all sounds a bit Fox News but it’s happening. In one such case, a US woman had a grandson diagnosed with brain damage from early chemical exposure and she created a help forum called And yes, we have a home grown scene of our own. According to a report published by the Australian Crime Commission last year, 603 clandestine labs were detected nation wide between April 2011 and 2012, which represents only 10 percent of what’s estimated to be out there. And of that number, nearly all crop up in rental properties which are then re-leased after the lab is removed. Is this a problem?

“Yeah, it’s a problem,” says Lucy Eldred who works for Jena Dyco, a company that trains property managers and cleaners to deal with meth labs. “In Australia, the police exit the picture very early on. They won’t clean up; they’ll just take the evidence they need. They then issue a notice to the environmental health officer at the local government and it’s their responsibility to contact the property owner.” According to Lucy, this is where the clean-ups can get freestyle due to the cost of hiring professionals. “It can range from $10,000 up to $70,000 depending on the contamination and size of the property. Landlords are obviously very reluctant to pay this if they’re not aware of risks.”

Sometimes the lab isn’t detected. This is when tenants move into a house and become mysteriously ill as the little baby Joel story illustrated. And as meth is a drug with an enormous waste to product ratio (six parts toxic runoff to every one part of saleable meth), a house can be a poisonous place if no one’s cleaned it up. Lucy explains they train occupational hygienists to test for chemicals which can identify former labs. Primarily these chemicals are pseudoephedrine and residual methamphetamine, but shadow chemicals include lead phosphorus, anhydrous ammonia, iodine, and lithium. You’ve seen how meth labs feature brown gunk sprayed up walls in photos? That’s another telltale sign. Australia’s most popular meth recipe, the Moscow Route, involves vaporising iodine which then congeals on walls and leaves brown stains. A dead give away.


At the moment Queensland is the state with the most labs but Western Australia is coming up fast. There’s also a pattern emerging in terms of who’s cooking, “Anecdotally, in the western part of the country, we have what they call user cooks – people using meth who make their own. Most other areas are producing meth on a purely commercial basis. The issue in Victoria and NSW are the bikie gangs and they have a lot more sophisticated set-ups. There was one discovered underground in a shipping container a couple of years ago in Gippsland. But usually it’s just in someone’s house, in a laundry or a bathroom.”

Because no one knows the sophistication of the lab, Lucy also trains cleaners to be aware of homemade security measures. As she explains “the police sometimes miss things like booby traps or weapons that are lying around. In terms of booby traps we’ve seen photos from the Victorian Police of light globes filled with nails so it’ll explode whenever someone flicks the switch. In non-bikie set-ups the biggest problem you’ll have is a Rottweiler. Generally the police will deal with that stuff but we train people to be aware of it.”

While Breaking Bad presents drug cooks are misunderstood dads, the reality is often a lot more desperate. “These people are often addicted themselves. On top of that, there’s a common perception that you only find meth labs out in poorer suburbs like Dandenong and Frankston, but they find just as many in richer ones like Toorak and Kew.” Asked whether the problem is rising or falling she admits they’re unsure. “It’s becoming a worse problem in that more meth labs are being detected, but does that mean the police are just becoming better at detecting them? We don’t know.”

For Lucy, the whole sad situation comes back to the tenants. “They’re definitely getting the blunt end of the stick. If you’re saying, I’ve got headaches, my baby is sick and there’s something wrong with this property, the landlord often just says that’s your health. There’s just not an understanding that former-meth labs are a problem. I’m not trying to fear-monger, I’m just saying that it’s a hidden problem and people should to be aware of it.”

Follow the author on Twitter - @MorgansJulian