Meth Mayhem: States lag in protecting buyers from contamination

To Jonathan Hankins, his personal story is also a valuable public service announcement: "This could happen to anybody."

Last June for $36,000, Hankins bought a Freddie Mac foreclosure in tiny Klamath Falls, Ore., near the California border. Although the two-bedroom house appeared in local police reports as a place where arrests had been made for meth trafficking, Hankins says, there was no documentation of meth manufacturing.

Soon enough Jonathan, his wife Beth, and 2-year-old son Ezra, began having multiple health problems. They all suffered from dry mouth. His wife and son had mouth sores and trouble breathing. He had nosebleeds and a severe sinus headache.

After three weeks, they moved out. They also spent $50 for a meth test and when the results from the lab came back they discovered the home had a contamination level almost 80 times greater than permissible under Oregon law.

"With all these foreclosures coming on the market it's sort of like land mines," Hankins says.

From 1999 to 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported uncovering 21,000 residential meth labs. Their addresses are documented in the agency's aptly named Clandestine Drug Lab Registry (http://www.justice.gov/dea/clan-lab/index.shtml).

An analysis of state laws by Scripps Howard News Service found that Oregon is one of 28 states with a specific meth disclosure law pertaining to the purchase of a home. In several other states, once the property has been cleaned up, or "remediated," the owner does not have to tell a buyer about meth contamination. Only 17 states have meth-specific laws requiring landlords to disclose meth contamination to tenants. And when you move from the house to the driveway, car sellers in 42 states don't have to tell buyers about potential meth residue.

Freddie Mac spokesman Brad German said in a statement the lender knew nothing of the Hankins' house's meth history: "The Hankins family chose to forgo a home inspection or any other environmental test and bought the home in 'as-is' condition."

Hankins agrees he waived the inspection. He also points out that a meth test is not part of an Oregon home inspection. He hasn't hired a professional to decontaminate his house because he was told it would cost more than the house was worth. Now Hankins may have the house torn down and the property excavated.

In any case, there is division of opinion among experts on the degree to which any contaminated home can be rehabbed, how much it should cost, and even how much meth exposure is truly harmful.

What matters, says Caoimhin P. Connell, a forensic industrial hygienist in Bailey, Colo., is if the meth left behind rises to a level of "toxicological significance," adding, "Give me a squad car, a courtroom, a stack of hundred dollar bills, and I can get meth off all of them."

In Utah, the state says that 1.0 micrograms per 100 square centimeters is the level of toxicological significance. Oregon uses a different standard -- 0.5 micrograms per square foot -- which roughly equates to .05 micrograms per 100 square centimeters. Hankins said his sampling showed a contamination level of 38 micrograms.

"One microgram is roughly the volume of a grain of salt and 100 square centimeters is roughly the size of your palm," says Garth Haslem, a Utah certified decontamination specialist who says he can clean up a 2,000-square-foot house with minor contamination for $3,000 to $4,000.

Haslem believes meth contamination fears are overdone, adding, "I have a daughter looking for a house and I want one with warts -- especially meth because that's one of my strengths and we're looking for a big discount."

Patrick Berge, a program specialist with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, spent several years as a grad assistant at the University of Tennessee cooking meth in a laboratory setting.

"Even with a controlled cook, you still get meth everywhere," Berge says.

Ask Berge if he would ever consider buying a home that had been meth-contaminated and then later cleaned and declared safe, he laughs for several seconds and says: "No. I would not buy a property that had a meth cook on it. Not even one."

Even smoking meth leaves a residue. For his own "academic amusement," Connell did tests on five rooms while staying in a cheap Tulsa, Okla. motel on business. All tested positive for meth, though only one had significant levels. The Scripps analysis of state laws showed just 14 states requiring hotels to disclose meth contamination.

Through the website Change.org , which promotes social change by petitions, Hankins is expressing his frustration with Freddie Mac. Still, he's not bitter.

"It's an ugly situation," he says, "but we feel blessed we got out when we did."

(Contact Don Wade at dwadeinmemphis@aol.com . Research contributed

by Scripps Foundation interns Kamrel Eppinger, Jory Heckman, Monica Ibrahim, Matt Nelson, Tanya Parker, Kristopher Rivera and Emily Wilkins. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com .)

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