How America's Maze of Meth Laws Hurts the Poor and Marginalized

Fourteen states are holding onto an antiquated standard for how much meth residue is harmful and treating places that were merely near meth smoke as if they were full-blown drug labs.

by Nick Keppler
Aug 10 2015, 4:00am

A meth clean-up in West Virginia. Photo by the author

Kateri Court is a bright, relatively new five-story apartment building with large, three-panel windows letting in all the sunshine that comes to Bellingham, Washington. You might mistake it for a condo development built for young professionals who have just moved to this city, which sits at the northernmost edge of Washington State.

But Kateri Court is one of 91 buildings run by Catholic Housing Services of Western Washington, whose residents tend to earn well below the area's median income, and where eight apartments are set aside for single parents participating in a program to transition out of homelessness. Constructed in 2006 with a mix of state, federal and local funds, the structure meets LEED Gold green building standards, thanks in part to a unique ventilation system that reuses exhaust to help heat the building.

Last year, one resident visited another's apartment and saw him light up a meth pipe. The visitor alerted Catholic Housing Services, which called law enforcement. The Whatcom County Health Department "became concerned that the contamination may have traveled to adjoining units," according to Steve Powers, division director for Catholic Housing Services.

First, the department demanded testing of the units above, below, and beside that of the meth smoker. Neighboring apartments had some meth residue below the level the latest science suggests is benign, which is 1.5 micrograms per square centimeter—or 1.5 μg/100 cm2—but above what was then Washington State's own standard. That meant it was time for remediation—a.k.a. a clean-up from a licensed contractor—to satisfy Washington State's safety standard.

"Then they required we test the whole building," Powers says.

In the end, seven apartments had to be vacated and remediated, and the culprit seemed to be the pride of Katori Court: the state-of-the-art, eco-friendly ventilation system. By reusing air, it was spreading a small quantity of meth particles through the building. Those seven apartments were basically remodeled. Catholic Housing Services also had to clean the ducting system for all 40 units and replace the entire ventilation system. "Unbelievably, the full cost of cleanup was about $300,000," Powers tells me.

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The damage was covered in their insurance policy, under the "vandalism" clause, and Catholic Housing Services' insurer has since reworded their policy to specifically exempt meth contamination, according to Powers. He adds that the cost to insure the charity's 22 shelters, 17 transitional housing facilities, and 52 permanent housing properties has skyrocketed. "[It] has certainly been a burden for us to absorb even if the Kateri expense was covered," Powers says.

And most of it might have been unnecessary.

To be sure, meth—an amateur chemist's drug made from materials purchasable at Walmart in bathtubs, closets, basements and makeshift labs across the country—leaves behind a residue that can be harmful. A 2009 study found that headaches, nausea, vomiting, respiratory and eye irritation show up in a small percentage of people exposed to a former meth site, and every so often a horror story of a family falling ill after buying a "meth house" from an unscrupulous realtor makes it into a local paper. However, 14 states and countless local jurisdictions are holding onto an antiquated standard for how much meth residue is harmful, and treats places that were just downwind of meth usage—like the apartments in Kateri Court—as if they were full-blown meth labs. The resulting fees and facility shutdowns tend to impact some of America's most vulnerable citizens.

The first wave of laws regulating third-hand meth exposure—or contact with meth particles left in the environment—passed in the early 2000s. They almost universally used the standard of 0.1 μg/100 cm2, or the the smallest amount that could be detected.

"That standard comes from a time when we had very little knowledge of meth, when we just assumed if there was any, we had to get rid of it." says Greg McKnight, the former clandestine drug lab manager for the Washington State Department of Health. "It has no scientific basis."

In 2009, the state of California finalized its finding that third-hand exposure to be meth becomes dangerous when it reaches 1.5 μg/100 cm2, a metric that has been tacitly endorsed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but so far, only a handful of states have incorporated that rule into law.

All of these measurements are microscopic—less than the size of a fraction of a grain of salt on an area the size of a CD case—but for homeowners, landlords, housing agencies, mortgage-holding banks left with a meth-effected property, it pays to be in a 1.5 μg/100 cm2 area.

Since the Kateri Court disaster, Washington State has upped its threshold for meth contamination. Had the state done that a year earlier, it would have shaved $200,000 off the price of remediating the building, according to Power, "and based on the reasoning employed by the [state] health department, no one's health would have been placed at risk by performing a more modest and reasonable cleanup."

A few ounces of crank in a sock drawer can require a visit from a crew in hazmat suits.

For over six months now, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have struggling to contain meth cleanup costs on the Flathead Indian Reservation, a span of land that stretches five counties and is home to 28,000 people in Western Montana. Last February, a custodian found a meth pipe in a washing machine in the basement of the Arlee Head Start Center, a pre-K program with an enrollment of 38 kids, according to tribal spokesman Robert McDonald. The tribes shut down the center. (The program itself continued at a nearby church during the two months the building was off-limits.) The Tribal Council then ordered meth residue tests on all public buildings. The immersion school, community center, and health clinic all came up clean, but residue was found in the senior center, a nonresidential building that hosts programs and weekly meals for the elderly. "Definitely from smoking," according to the center's director, Willie Stevens. "No one here has been making." The senior center, too, was deemed off-limits.

Last year, the Salish & Kootenai Housing Authority started a policy of testing each of its public housing units upon a renter vacating. So far, 36—half of those tested—have come up positive for meth, increasing the waiting list for housing.

According to the US Justice Department, Native Americans have the highest meth usage rates of any ethnic group. "It'd be hard to find an Indian community that hasn't been impacted by drugs," says tribal spokesperson McDonald. "Recently, we've seen a lot of meth and prescription drugs. ... Where there is pain, there is addiction. There is something called historical trauma."

Technically, the tribes' meth cleanup is entirely voluntarily. Jurisdiction can be complicated in Indian country, but Montana environmental laws do not pertain to reservations. Still, on matters of ecology, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes try to utilize state laws in order to be good neighbors according to McDonald. Because Montana adheres to the old 0.1 μg/100 cm2 standard, that courtesy hasn't been cheap.

The tribes spent $50,000 remediating and reopening the Head Start Center. (That cost does not include replacing all of the items that were thrown out.) The Tribal Council is still creating a plan to remediate the senior center and the rental units. McDonald says each cleanup will cost $50,000 to $80,000, coming from the tribes' budget.

"If we were out in California, we'd be paying half of what we are paying," he says.

Fourteen states hold onto the standard of 0.1 μg of meth residue per 100 cm2: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and West Virginia. (Arkansas' threshold is actually 0.05 μg/100 cm2, though 0.1. μg/100 cm2 is the lowest level detectable, so that's the limit by default.) Indiana, Michigan and Oregon go by 0.5 μg/100 cm2. Utah's standard is 1.0 μg/100 cm2. Seven states have moved the needle to 1.5 μg/100 cm2: California, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.

If you don't see your state, you don't get off scot free; it might have a different way of measuring meth toxicity. Also, your city or county probably has protocols and standards, especially if you live out in meth country.

Of the places that have the more 1.5 μg/100 cm2 standard, most loosened their regulations in response to what, in public health and remediation circles, has come to be known as "the California Study." (Its actual name: "Assessment of Children's Exposure to Surface Methamphetamine Residues in Former Clandestine Methamphetamine Labs, and Identification of a Risk-Based Cleanup Standard for Surface Methamphetamine Contamination.")

In 2005, as the state was dealing with about 100 meth busts a year, the California legislature ordered the premier scientific study on the toxicity threshold of third-hand meth exposure, i.e., how much residue in your house would make you sick. The job fell to two state agencies: the Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The study was authored by Dr. Charles B. Salocks, a toxicologist who had been working in various state environmental agencies since 1989.

Coming up with the measurement "was a two-part process," Salocks tells VICE. "One was to characterize the toxicity of meth at low levels." The second was "estimation of the exposure that a small child living in a former clandestine lab would receive."

As for figuring out the toxicity of meth, there was actually a few filing cabinets worth of studies dating back a century for Salocks to consult. Before it was a sludge that hillbillies used to get high, before it was a West Coast club drug that paired well with gay sex, before it provided a revenue stream and means to ride all night to Hell's Angels, methamphetamine was used as a stimulant for Allied and Axis powers in World War II. Before that, meth's parent drug, amphetamine, was manufactured and sold as a decongestant and stimulate. This left 125 controlled experimental studies, in several languages and from military and big pharma scientists, for Salocks to consult.

"We looked at studies from the Germans in the 1930s when they were trying to improve the performance of soldiers," he says. "We reviewed the human studies [in which] women gained weight during pregnancy when they were taking methamphetamine." If it was a reliable scientific study on humans absorbing meth, Salocks incorporated it.

To unlock the second half of the equation—determining how much residue meth would make it into the system of a small child—Salocks relied on previous scientific models, such as the EPA's Stochastic Human Exposureand Dose Simulation Model, used in previous studies of chemical exposure. "Basically, we were trying to figure out how much someone who's always touching things, who might be on the floor, with sticks his fingers in his mouth would be exposed to a toxin in the environment."

The conclusion: 1.5 μg/100 cm2 or less of meth residue is harmless.

This does not mean there are no precautions to be taken before moving into a "meth house." "Other contaminants may be present," according to Sallocks. "Cleanup specialists generally don't test for those chemicals and don't have cleanup numbers for them." If you experience the headaches, nausea, and sleep disturbances that have been observed in these places and your methamphetamine residues are less than 1.5 μg/100 cm2, it's likely something else leftover from the meth operation.

Adopted as a legal standard, 1.5 μg/100 cm2 will save anyone from moving into an untreated meth lab, according to Salocks—except in cases of lithium/anhydrous ammonia synthesis, which does not generate fumes, and "in cases where the 'cook' was extremely careful about venting fumes to the outdoors." It just might not prevent you from moving into a place where someone burned some meth every now and then or a place like the apartments in Kateri Court, where someone a few units over was doing crank. The 1.5 μg/100 cm2 standard "would be hard to achieve if you were simply smoking meth," says Salocks. "It's not like smoking a cigarette. You put a glass pipe up to your mouth and take it right into your lungs. It's a pretty efficient process."

The standard is of course not beyond challenge. A new study could settle on a different number. But many professionals specializing in meth consider it preferable to the old one, which is based on no science. The same year the California study was first released, the federal Methamphetamine Remediation Research Act required the EPA to come up with its own voluntary guidelines for meth cleanup. With 35 public health officials specializing in meth, from agencies across the country, signing on, it adopted the 1.5 μg/100 cm2 standard.

But so far only a handful of states and other jurisdiction have made it law, leaving property owners and housing agencies coughing up cash to meet the stricter standards.

As Catholic Housing Services was tearing apart Kateri Court's ventilation system, public housing agencies in Washington State were also getting clobbered by meth costs.

The Peninsula Housing Authority, responsible for the public housing in the two counties across the Puget Sound from Seattle, had three 1940s-era duplexes it couldn't fill until it paid for a $200,000 cleanup, according to Executive Director Kay Kassinger. In each case, a resident smoked meth in one unit of the duplex and particles seeped into the other half. "The remediation company told us we'd have to tear them all apart, down to the studs," says Kissinger.

The Tacoma Housing Authority has it even worse. It tests every unit upon vacancy would up with about 140 "hot" apartments within three years, according to Executive Director Michael Mirra. The cost to clean them all was about $4 million.

There had never been a bust for meth manufacturing in either's jurisdiction, the two agencies claim.

"It was not affordable and not justifiable because it was not a health-based criteria," according to Mirra. So, the two housing authorities and the Association of Washington Housing Authorities made a formal petition for a rules change to the Department of Health.

Under Washington State law, the standard of meth remediation was entirely left to the Department of Health. Still, the state legislature held a hearing on it. The change seemed like a no-brainer to state Rep. Steve Tharinger.

"We looked at the study from California. The housing authorities wanted a change," Tharinger told VICE. "Public health officials said [the stringent standard] wasn't needed, and it wasn't meth labs. It was just renters or occupants smoking."

A few remediation contractors raised a small fuss. According to the minutes of the hearing, some submitted written comments stating "[a} belief that the primary study considered in establishing the new standard is flawed; and without a strict standard to determine a property has been used as a lab, many homes in need of remediation will not be detected."

"But of course they didn't have much credibility," according to Rep. Tharinger.

In January, Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman signed off on the change, establishing Washington State's threshold for meth remediation in 1.5 μg/100 cm2 standard. Meanwhile, counties have chosen to keep the old one. But contractors working for the Peninsula Housing Authority were able to meet the new threshold by simply washing down the surface areas of three units.

The change could have helped the administrators of Kateri Court, but Steve Powers, division director, takes one consolation from the experience.

"It's the cleanest building in Whatcom County, if not the state, as far as I'm concerned."