TACOMA, Wash. – Former methamphetamine labs litter Washington state, and in Pierce County there’s hundreds of houses and other properties where meth was produced and now on a comprehensive “contamination” list.
Those are the properties that have been found and flagged, but an expert in the field said there’s more off the list and it’s growing.
“There’s nothing that says, ‘Hey, the house you’re looking at may have had some small meth production at one point in time,’” said Derek Murphy. His home is listed on the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s list of former contamination sites.
He said when he was getting close to closing on his Tacoma home, he was blindsided by his inspection.
“In there it was like an ‘oh, by the way clause,' your house may or may not have been on the city registry for some methamphetamine production,’” he said.
Records showed that between 2008 and 2009, there was a six-month meth cleanup on the home he was about to purchase.
As a former law enforcement agent, he was very concerned.
“The production of meth involves so many chemicals, you’re really talking about something that can be declared a hazmat site.”
He was able to ask questions and learn Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department worked with the contractors to ensure his home was contaminate-free, testing negative to health standards for any toxins that result in the production of meth.
Another Tacoma homeowner, Lance Westgaard said he was never notified his home had been on the contamination list.
“This is the first I’m hearing of that," he said.
His home and his two next-door neighbors are among 680 homes in Tacoma on the former methamphetamine contamination list.
“There’s so much going on,” he said about buying the home, “you’re kind of just signing papers and going through hundreds and hundreds of papers and that just never was brought my attention.”
It’s state law that homeowners must be notified when they purchase a home if it was on the list. It’s also state law that landlords do not need to notify their tenants.
That means you could be renting a former methamphetamine lab and not know it.
“Research has shown that long-term effects can include cancer, brain damage and even miscarriages,” said Joe Gallagher, with Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, about meth lab exposure. He said it’s because of the serious health risks that the department has taken a proactive approach to oversee decontamination of these sites.
“We’ve cleaned up a lot of properties over the years, right now there’s only a few active ones that we’re still working,” said Gallagher. “The numbers are greatly decreasing. The reason for that is kind of unclear, but it’s great for our communities to have less of those properties because they do pose a public health concern.”
The list is compiled by notification from law enforcement and contractors. Heidi Hamilton of Able Environmental said Pierce County is one of the few active players working to make a difference. She has been cleaning up contaminated properties for 16 years alongside her father who runs the company.
“The counties are getting less and less stringent,” she said. There are some agencies that don’t keep track, she said, and more contractors that won’t notify at all.
“It’s scary, because that’s when people come in, buy them, flip them, they don’t get cleaned and people move into them and are unknowingly living in a home that’s still contaminated by meth,” she said.
The contamination goes everywhere, she said. “It’s in the water, it’s in the soil and could be in the wells.”
Most of her calls come from people who move in and start getting sick. She said more often than not, the homes come back positive for methamphetamine and byproducts of its production.
“It can cause some serious contamination.”
It’s the reason for the list, said Gallagher, and fortunately they are making headway.
In 2013, there were 103 properties in Pierce County. In 2015, there were 11 properties identified.
“I am wishing I would’ve known that ahead of time,” said Westgaard, “that could’ve been a deal breaker.”