Meth labs leave behind a toxic mess - WRBL

Meth labs leave behind a toxic mess

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The number of methamphetamine labs in North Carolina is reaching record highs, but the problem often isn't solved when the lab is shut down.

Producing meth leaves behind a toxic mess long after the lab is gone; and in North Carolina, weak state regulations may be putting residents in harm's way.

Johnston County resident Doug Parrish worries about his son's health because an old meth lab next door has yet to be cleaned up.

"As far as any clean-up, they arrested the boy, carried him to jail and I've never seen him since," Parrish said.

According to the Department of Justice, meth is a stimulant that is swallowed, snorted, injected or smoked. Todd Duke, with the State Bureau of Investigation, says all it takes is five chemicals you can buy at any convenience store or pharmacy.

When combined, the chemicals create a "toxic brew," and those chemicals can go airborne, traveling throughout a house or apartment and saturating the walls, floors, carpets and even ceiling.

"Anything that is porous just sucks all those chemicals in like a sponge," said Josh Raxter, with Southern Elite, a company out of Denver, N.C., that specializes in meth residue detection and the decontamination of former meth labs.

Duke explained, "If they're making meth then obviously they're not going to be concerned about putting plastic down while they're doing it."

The Department of Justice says the residue left behind by a meth lab can be deadly. Even small amounts of these poisons can damage the nervous system, as well as trigger birth defects and developmental problems for babies in the womb.

In fact, meth labs are so toxic that law enforcement officials cover themselves from head to toe in protective hazmat gear to remove evidence. Yet when law enforcement makes a meth bust, they clean up the evidence but not the residue.

"We are not involved at all in the after clean-up of making it habitable again," Duke said. "That's not our job."

So whose job is it? In North Carolina, when a resident buys a home, the seller must provide a disclosure statement to the buyer, but the disclosure statement makes no mention of meth. Also, there are no laws that require a landlord or property owner to inform a renter that the property was formerly used as a meth lab.

State law requires the property owner to clean up the toxic residue before renting or selling the property. Many states even require a residue detection test be performed after the clean-up is complete to show that residue levels meet the safety standard.

In North Carolina, that is not the case.

The local health departments are required to inform the property owner of the presence of a meth lab and the requirements for cleaning it up. The property owner is then required to fill out a pre-decontamination and decontaminate form verifying the site has been properly cleaned and return it to the health department.

After the clean-up, county health inspectors are allowed to inspect the property, but it is not required. In fact, Larry Sullivan, director of the Johnston County Health Department, said it is "pretty rare" that inspectors follow up.

Wake County says it sends inspectors to do a "visual inspection" but no detection test is performed. And Harnett, Wayne and Sampson counties do not send inspectors to the property to verify decontamination.

Meanwhile, meth labs are spreading rapidly. There are at least 3,000 former meth labs in North Carolina, and those are only the ones authorities know about.

In central North Carolina, Harnett, Sampson, Johnston and Wayne counties ranked among the top 10 in the state for meth labs in the last decade -- Harnett County had 136 labs, Sampson had 118, Johnston had 115 and Wayne had 107. In Duplin County, residents were so desperate to slow the growth of meth that they painted an entire building pleading with users to stop.

"Now-a-days -- with the one-pot labs or shake-and-bake labs -- it's really easy," Duke said.

Of the nearly two dozen homes WNCN checked across Harnett, Johnston and Wake counties, many residents said they had no idea their homes may contain lingering chemicals left from former meth labs.

In Harnett County, an old meth lab isn't just next door, it's in the backyard of current owners Bill and Pauline Batts. The former owner cooked meth in a barn where the Batts' cats currently live.

"There wasn't a clean-up unless it was cleaned up before we came," Pauline Batts said. "And I really don't think there was.

"I didn't see any signs. Before we put anything in that barn, I took the blower and blew everything out of there -- dirt, dust. If there was some of that there, I reckon I blew it out, too."

Raxter said cleaning up a meth lab can be difficult.

"It's tough because a lot of people don't know how to clean it properly," Raxter said. "They think, 'Oh, I can take some Clorox and Lysol wipes and it's all gone.'"

And Tyler Truxell of Southern Elite said, "We've walked into places that test really high for meth and there's no smell -- it doesn't look dirty."

A common misconception is that meth labs are a problem confined to rural counties. However, in June 2012, authorities busted a meth lab inside Raleigh's Cedar Point Apartments. Authorities condemned the apartment and put a sign on the door warning residents not to enter.

"We dodged a bullet," Shera McDaniel, who lives in the Cedar Point Apartments building, said. "I mean, if that meth lab had exploded, a lot of lives could've been lost.

"The idea that someone here -- a resident here -- is jeopardizing all of our lives is very scary."

In returning to Cedar Point Apartments, WNCN found a new family had moved in to the apartment where authorities discovered the meth lab. The family declined to talk on-camera but said they were not informed that the apartment was previously used to cook meth.

The property manager said he cleaned it up, and WNCN obtained documents from Wake County showing he did.

The family agreed to let Southern Elite test their apartment for any meth residue. Southern Elite took swabs from four areas around the apartment and found meth residue on the ceiling fan, but the rest of the apartment came back clean.

"If you're not thorough -- if you're not perfect -- you're leaving someone's health at risk," Truxell said.


Charlotte Huffman

An award-winning journalist with an investigative edge, Charlotte has driven legislative change with reports on workplace safety concerns and contaminated groundwater. Contact our Investigative Team anytime HERE. More>>

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