Soon after John Bates and his wife moved into their first home, the euphoria of realizing the American Dream gave way to a nightmare of foul odors, unexplained illnesses and spiraling costs.
A standard home inspection had revealed no problems with the home, in Suquamish, Wash., near Seattle. Bates, a Navy veteran and pipe fitter, and wife Jessie were thrilled to get the home on a 2-acre lot for $235,000, and they moved in with their then-7-year old son, Tyler, in March 2007. But soon after, the boy developed breathing problems, John Bates became “perpetually sick” and Jessie Bates developed strange skin rashes. It was a mystery until a year and a half later, when a neighbor casually mentioned what the previous occupant did for a living.
The Bates family was living in a former meth lab, soaked to the studs with dangerous chemicals. After tearing up walls and flooring, the Bates’ worst fears were confirmed.
“It came to us when we were tearing up the master bathroom, after the floor starting sinking and got spongy,” Jessie Bates told FoxNews.com. “That’s when we found the iodine-like staining on the walls and human feces under the floor.”
There was no meth lab disclosure law in Washington in 2008, when the Bates’ bought their home. Faced with an estimate of $90,000 for repairs, they instead chose to demolish the house and build anew — at a cost of $184,000.
“It’s an insane amount of money,” Jessie Bates told FoxNews.com.
More than two years after rebuilding on the property, Jessie Bates says the family has put the meth nightmare behind them. Tyler, now 11, is healthy and getting good grades.
“But really, we were very, very lucky,” she said. “We know that we’re the exception.”
Jaimee Alkinani and her husband were not as fortunate. They learned in 2007 — also from a neighbor — that their three-bedroom home in a Salt Lake City suburb had been used as a meth lab. The contamination was later found to be 63 times higher than the levels deemed safe by the state Department of Health. The Alkinanis moved out and nearly went into bankruptcy before reaching a settlement with their mortgage company.
“Because there were no [disclosure] laws at the time, there was nothing we could do,” Alkinani told FoxNews.com. “We were constantly sick. We blamed it on allergies and didn’t think it could be our house.”
McKinley Alkinani, now 5, still undergoes breathing treatments and takes steroids regularly, his mother said.
“It’s rough, anytime he gets sick, it goes right to his lungs,” Jaimee Alkinani said. “We thought he was just born with bad lungs.
“I would hate for other people to go through this,” she said. “It’s such a crazy situation.”
The experience is an increasingly common one, as authorities shut down thousands of residential meth labs all over the country, homes that often return to the housing market with fresh paint and new carpeting hiding a toxic nightmare. In 2011, 10,287 meth labs were seized across the country, with states like Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee leading the way, according to Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) statistics. While new disclosure and decontamination regulations are in place in roughly half of the country and a growing industry has emerged to scrub shuttered meth labs clean of dangerous chemicals, many homes still fall through the cracks.
- Abandoned labs and a patchwork of local and state regulations on how those properties are decontaminated and then resold has created a “nationwide issue,” DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden told FoxNews.com.
“Some of the byproducts of meth labs can be extraordinarily toxic and explosive,” Dearden said. “And when you either pour those chemicals down the drain or into the yard, you’re talking about highly toxic substances that get into our environment and create enormous problems.”
The process of making methamphetamine — which can be smoked, snorted or injected — involves dangerous chemicals and substances like ether, acetone, iodine crystal, sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide, among others. And every pound of meth produced can yield up to 5 pounds in toxic waste, according to DEA estimates.
Prior to the federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2006, which regulated the sale of ephedrine and related products used in meth production, the drug was typically manufactured in “superlabs” by organized criminal outfits using industrial space. An unintended consequence of the law was to drive production into residential homes.
“Now you see more of these mom-and-pop operations, one-pot methods,” Dearden said.
An exception to that trend occurred in March, when DEA agents seized 750 pounds of meth with a street value of $34 million in San Jose, Calif., one of the largest such seizures in U.S. history.
But the trend toward home-cooking — and the mess it leaves behind — has given rise to a new business specializing in decontamination of former meth labs. One company contacted by FoxNews.com estimates that it serves roughly 2,000 homes nationally per year — and that figure is growing.
“Meth labs are on the rise everywhere,” said Joe Mazzuca, operations manager for the Idaho-based Meth Lab Cleanup. “I get like 60 alerts a day, whether it’s a shake-and-bake operation in Missouri or a giant meth lab in Mexico.”
Mazzuca has 60 teams of two or three cleaners operating across the country, Mazzuca said. They don full hazmat suits and respirators when scrubbing former labs, where chemicals have often been absorbed into walls, floors and furniture. Costs vary depending on the size of the property, the extent of contamination and state requirements, but decontamination can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands, he said. That doesn’t include structural renovations, which can send the tab into the stratosphere. Sometimes, even the surrounding properties and groundwater is contaminated.
“I can’t tell you how many calls I get about pets and children getting sick, with their skin turning black from toxins they were breathing,” Mazzuca said.
Roughly half of the country — including perennial hotspots like Kentucky and Arkansas — has disclosure laws now on the books, as well as stringent regulations for remediation of former meth labs, but a lack of oversight in those remaining states is troublesome. For example, in southern states like Mississippi, Georgia and Florida, those laws and regulations are not in place, Mazzuca said.
Mazzuca advises potential homebuyers to do their homework before purchasing a property, especially if it’s been subject to foreclosure or is a bank-owned property east of the Rockies.
Donetta Held, CEO of the Indiana-based Crisis Cleaning, echoed that sentiment, advising that testing for prior meth manufacture should become standard procedure when buying a new property.
“Every year it’s just happening more and more,” Held said. “People are unknowingly purchasing new homes or renting apartments and saying, ‘Wow, this was a former meth lab.’ You can’t always smell it and you can’t always see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
Click here to check a property against the DEA’s National Clandestine Laboratory Register.
Click here on what to do if you find a clandestine meth lab.
Click here for statistics and figures on DEA arrests and seizures.