POSTED ON DECEMBER 19, 2012:
Not all home meth lab cleanups do the job
As of Dec. 10, Tulsa police have discovered 284 meth labs.
Such findings not only present a challenge to the criminal justice system, but also to public health.
Seventy-five chemicals may remain at former meth lab sites long after police close a case. Irritants and corrosives, like hydrochloric acid, as well as metals and salts, such as lead acetate, linger on after the last batch of meth has been made.
"If former meth labs have not been decontaminated properly, chronic exposure to residual, dangerous, and hidden chemicals can cause serious health problems, such as cancer; damage to the brain, liver, and kidneys; birth defects; and reproductive problems such as miscarriages," noted the Environmental Protection Agency in a 2011 report, which also emphasized that children are especially vulnerable to such contamination.
In Tulsa, notices are posted at the meth lab sites and also mailed to property owners when meth lab discoveries are made, but far fewer than 284 such notices have been sent out this year. "Some of those labs are out in the open ... some in cars," said Bob Jackson, the city's neighborhood abatement coordinator.
This year, 78 such notices have been prepared, he said. Each notice references city ordinances in place meant to protect the safety of Tulsa neighborhoods.
"If it's a notice to abate, I do have a discussion with the property owner about remediating the property and making it inhabitable again and explaining to them what the law says," Jackson said.
The law, however, doesn't specify exactly what should be done to clean a property well enough for people to live there again. And while property owners generally let Jackson know when they've cleaned up a former meth lab, even that step of notifying the city isn't mandatory.
So are the properties being cleaned in a way to make them safe?
"There's no way for me to assess that," Jackson said. "I can't assess that one way or the other." He said there's simply no way to know how much contamination there might be at a site without testing the property, a process that would require sending samples to a qualified laboratory. "That's the only way I know how to do it," Jackson said.
Such a process isn't mandatory, but Jackson said real estate professionals typically want a proper cleanup.
"My experience has been that property owners, owners of commercial properties, specifically apartments and hotels, have been very responsive in working with the city to clean up the lab site," Jackson said. He added: "Where it gets a little less enthusiastic is when you have a property owner, where it's like a single-family home, especially if it's an older home," he said.
Tulsans can phone Jackson's department or Tulsa police if they have questions about the locations of meth lab sites, but an online map at the police department's website showing meth labs wasn't functioning at press time. At the federal level, the Drug Enforcement Administration also maintains a National Clandestine Laboratory Register for each state, with a list of addresses where such labs have been found.
In November 2010, legislation took effect in Oklahoma requiring landlords to notify tenants if an apartment has a history as a meth lab, unless "the level of contamination does not exceed one-tenth of one microgram (0.1 mcg) per one hundred square centimeters (100 cm2) of surface materials within the dwelling unit or pertinent part of the premises."
State Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, authored the legislation. But the language of the law doesn't specify exactly what language should be used for such notifications.
"There's notification through our lease agreements," said Becky Weaver, a board member of the Tulsa Apartment Association. Different apartments use different forms, however.
Weaver said the meth problem has improved in Tulsa, at least from a property-owner's perspective.
"I think it's gotten a lot better in the last couple of years. It seems they're like more in remote locations than in congested areas," Weaver said.
The recent law hasn't affected the rental business, she said.
"It may be a bit more challenging to lease it to the next resident, but I haven't heard of an apartment that has sat vacant for a year at a time or an excessive amount of time," Weaver said.
Property owners turn to commercial cleaning firms. But Bill Coye, owner of Tulsa-based Apex Bioclean, said the lack of uniform regulations in Oklahoma make for widely varying standards of clean.
"You, yourself can start a business this afternoon called ABC Meth Lab cleanup and go to work doing whatever you feel like doing," Coye said, adding that testing such as that mentioned in the recent apartment notification law still may involve taking the testing company at their word.
In 2007, Congress passed federal legislation to address some of the environmental concerns related to meth lab sites. In 2009, the EPA published voluntary guidelines for meth lab cleanups.
But in its 2011 report, the agency noted the lack of funding to carry out other aspects of the legislation, including a research program to study the effects of meth-related chemicals on health.
Some states have implemented their own regulations for what trace amounts of chemicals are acceptable. "It's not a yes or no test. It's a how much and where," Coye said.
Two years ago, the city considered passing an ordinance that might have offered more direct guidance for how to handle meth lab cleanups, but Jackson said he wasn't of aware of any similar push going on currently.
Coye said it's simply not known what levels of chemicals pose a threat to health. A registered nurse, Coye said that when he speaks to property owners, he "could care less if anybody hires me or not." He stresses the danger of meth chemicals and the importance of a proper cleanup to all who ask about his services, he said -- and he's come to expect a lack of interest from the average property owner locally.
In roughly the last two years, he said he could remember only one person who "wanted to have their property cleaned by the book," Coye said. "Usually they say, 'Thank you for your time.' And they hang up."
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