Earlier this year, Tyler and Elisha Hessel were settling into their new house in Missouri and anticipating their first child, due in January 2020. Then, they received some worrying news from their doctors.
As explained on their GoFundMe page, a routine pregnancy examination revealed that Elisha had tested positive for amphetamines. Considering neither couple had ever touched the drug, this left a huge amount of confusion and concern. A lengthy process of elimination later revealed their home was riddled with unsafe levels of methamphetamine contamination. Only after dozens of phone calls and meetings with lawyers did the couple find out their newly purchased house was a former meth lab.
While this might sound like an unfortunate but uncommon story from the extended Breaking Bad universe, it's a situation that arises more often than you might think. So, here's everything you need to know about the weird world of meth labs becoming family homes.
How Long Can Meth Linger Around?
A study by Flinders University in Australia, published this week in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that traces of the drug can lurk in a former meth lab for over five years. Using wipe samples, they were able to detect traces of methamphetamine on multiple surfaces and objects around the house, even though the building hadn’t been used for cooking drugs for at least five years.
Study author Dr Kirstin Ross explained a statement: "Although the time since the cooking had taken place was significant, the levels of contamination were extremely high in both household items that were part of the house when cooking was taking place (blinds, carpets, walls, etc.) and also in articles brought to the house post-cooking (rugs, toys, beds, etc)."
"The most significant mass of methamphetamine was reported to be within the blinds," they added. "These are plastic blinds that were present when manufacture was suspected to have been undertaken. This is consistent with observations from other properties where higher levels of methamphetamine are present in materials such as PVC, polyurethane, and stained and varnished timbers."
What's The Health Risk?
Another study from 2015 looked at the potential health effects of this scenario by analyzing a family of five, including three children aged 7 to 11 years, who lived in a home in rural Australia that was previously a clandestine meth lab. All family members reported some mild effects on their health, such as sore eyes, rashes, dizziness, blurred vision, and persistent coughs. Many family members even noted symptoms like excess energy, anxiety, and trouble sleeping.
The highest concentrations of meth were found in the hair of their youngest child, a 7-year-old boy. Most concerning of all, he appeared to display health issues that were not present before living in the home, including asthma-like symptoms, fearfulness, nightmares, irritability, and aloofness. The symptoms were so severe, doctors said he was displaying signs of ADHD.
How Can I Find Out If My House Was A Drug Lab?
The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also holds a National Clandestine Laboratory Register Database, a live map that shows the addresses of drug laboratories discovered by law enforcement agencies.
The registry lists over 110,000 meth labs that were uncovered from 1999 to 2008. In Missouri, a state where meth use is especially rampant, the database logs 490 addresses that were formerly drug labs. Bear in mind, these are just the ones the police managed to bust. It’s estimated that the overwhelming majority of meth labs go undetected.
Although there are a number of highly organizated “superlabs” that can mass-produce meth in large quantities for organized crime groups, a significant amount of production comes from smaller domestic settings.
Meth labs are often found in “domestic settings”, in part because the lucrative drug can be fashioned out of everyday household chemicals, such as cold medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, drain cleaner, salt, iodine, alcohol, matches, batteries, paint thinner, etc. So, if there’s any evidence of unusually high quantities of these ingredients, perhaps in a basement or attic, it could be a hint that the property has been used to cook meth.
It isn't just houses or apartments you need to think about, either. Campervans, or RVs, are often used as rolling meth labs to avoid police detection – à la Breaking Bad. Unbeknownst customers purchasing contaminated vehicles previously used as drug labs is becoming an increasing concern, especially in New Zealand where meth use is on the rise, Radio New Zealand reports.
Smell can also be a giveaway. The aroma of meth has been described as a punchy, musty smell of vinegar, ammonia, window cleaner, or even burnt plastic. However, using your nose perhaps isn’t the most scientific method to sniff out a potential meth lab as these smells can often arise from other sources, both illicit and banal.
If you’re looking for something a little more sturdy, it is possible to buy a relatively inexpensive methamphetamine residue detection kit online (although we are unable to vouch for the reliability or accuracy of these tests).
There are also a number of certified drug lab cleanup companies across the US that can be found with a search on your local health department’s website. If in doubt, contact your local health authority for guidance.