Homes may be contaminated by meth labs

State does not require meth lab decontamination

When Leslie Dawes moved his wife and children into a rental home a few months ago, he never thought to ask the landlord whether a previous tenant had once operated a meth lab there.  And the landlord was under no legal obligation to tell him.

[WEB EXTRA: Locations of clandestine labs reported to DEA]

"It's crazy. I had no idea," Dawes said after Local 6 informed him of the meth lab bust at his address in 2005.  "It's a big surprise to me."

Dawes is among hundreds of Central Floridians living in houses that may have once been contaminated by the toxic fumes produced when methamphetamines are "cooked" in a home lab. The drug is manufactured using hazardous household chemicals like drain cleaner, antifreeze, and kerosene.

Like Dawes, several other renters contacted by Local 6 were never told of past drug manufacturing in their homes.  In a few instances, the property owners themselves say there were never informed of potential meth lab contamination when they purchased the homes.

Unlike the 29 states with laws governing meth lab clean-up or disclosure, Florida has no statewide regulations requiring a homeowner to decontaminate a home before selling or renting it.  Although home sellers must notify buyers of anything that might "materially affect the value" of the property, there is no provision in Florida law specifically mandating the disclosure of past meth lab activity.

"Most of these homes are being reoccupied, and people either don't know the hazards of it, or they never even knew it was a meth lab," said former undercover narcotics agent Laura Spaulding.

Spaulding now owns a company, Spaulding Decon, which specializes in cleaning up hazardous meth lab residue.

"It gets everywhere," said Spaulding.  "It embeds itself into the carpet, into the drywall.  If the heating and air conditioning are on, it will siphon itself through the ductwork."

Simply being exposed to chemicals produced by a meth lab can cause serious medical issues including respiratory problems, internal organ damage, chemical burns, and potentially fatal poisoning, according to federal health officials.

Spaulding once received a call from a woman whose child and dog mysteriously became ill after moving into a former meth lab home.

"The dog ended up dying because he licked the carpet," said Spaulding.

When law enforcement discovers a meth lab, hazardous materials crews contracted by the agency will typically remove the raw chemical ingredients and other drug paraphernalia.  The bulk of the decontamination work is typically left to the property owner, according to Spaulding.

Indiana is among the states requiring property owners to decontaminate a home after law enforcement uncovers meth lab operations. Depending on the level of contamination, that cleanup process can cost $7000 to $30,000, according to Spaulding.  After a house is cleaned, the property owner must receive a certification from an approved inspector before the address is removed from a state website listing the location of former meth labs.

The Indiana law, which went into effect last July, also requires property owners to notify future buyers whether a property was used to manufacture meth.  Other states, like Missouri, even mandate that landlords share such information with tenants. 

A few Florida municipalities, including Palatka and Bradenton, have created or considered local ordinances requiring former meth labs to be cleaned up.  But there are currently no statewide regulations.

"It seems like Florida is a little slow to come to the table," said Spaulding.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency provides a database listing the addresses of clandestine labs that have been discovered, including nearly 800 in Florida.  However, the agency acknowledges the list is not complete; sometimes local law enforcement does not report the meth lab to the federal government.

To determine whether a home is contaminated by a former meth lab, Spaulding suggests conducting a meth residue detection test.  Several retailers offer inexpensive test kits that provide instant results.  For less than $50, Spaulding's company provides a do-it-yourself test that is analyzed by a certified lab.

Spaulding also recommends contacting local law enforcement before buying or renting a home to find out if there was any prior drug activity on the property. 

"But remember, just because the police weren't called doesn't mean there was no meth lab," she said.