Provo • A hazmat suit and respirator is what Jared Herbert typically wears to work. If passers-by ask what he is working on, he tells them he’s just cleaning a house. Or taking care of a residential chemical contamination.
He never gives the real reason his cleaning crew travels in unmarked vans to rip out carpet, scrub air ducts or load furniture into a dumpster.
“We keep it as discreet as we can,” he explained. “You want to know that someone has meth in your neighborhood, but you also don’t want to know, you know?”
Herbert works as a foreman for Meth Mob, a Provo-area decontamination company focused on cleaning “meth houses.” He travels across the state to clean all kinds of houses where high measures of meth contamination are reported. His crew and asbestos-cleaning crews wear the same garb.
“I’ve done really run-down, beat-up houses in beat-up neighborhoods, but then I’ve done multimillion-dollar homes that have meth,” Herbert said. “I hate to say it but yes, it’s everywhere.”
Ann Atkin, the owner of Meth Mob, said her company cleans more than 100 houses every year. Every month has been busier than the previous month in the two years the company has been in business.
“I don’t want this to be a fear factor,” she said. “We’ve tested lots of homes without meth, but we’ve also tested a lot that have [it].”
The dangers and damage of meth
Methamphetamine is an addictive stimulant, one that can be smoked, swallowed, snorted or injected.
The drug comes as a pill or a powder, though crystal meth looks like glass or shiny blueish white rocks.
Users who smoke or inject meth report feeling a brief and intense rush, while ingesting or snorting produces a long-lasting high, according to information from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Both effects release dopamine into the brain that regulates feelings of pleasure. It’s sometimes used for medical treatment of attention deficit disorder or obesity.
Small amounts create increased wakefulness, decreased appetite and violent behavior, along with rapid and irregular heart rate, increased blood pressure and hyperthermia.
High doses can elevate body temperature to lethal levels or cause cardiovascular collapse, extreme anorexia, dental problems and memory loss. Overdosing causes death from heart attacks or organ problems generated by overheating.
To home inspector Jared Fenn, meth is a huge issue that no one seems to talk about.
“It’s a much bigger problem than people want to admit or realize,” he said. “The problem here in Utah County is that it’s ‘Happy Valley.’ Nothing goes wrong here and everybody’s happy. But meth is a huge problem.”
He and his team in Orem work as home inspectors with the national franchise Pillar to Post. They inspect homes in Utah, Sanpete, Juab, Carbon, Emery, Sevier and Millard counties, often working with homebuyers worried about buying a meth-contaminated house.
Inspecting a residence for meth contamination is an extra service his business provides in addition to regular home inspections, much like radon or mold screening.
“It’s the first step in getting that peace of mind when you’re buying a property,” he explained.
But when it comes to meth contamination, “there’s really nothing that you can look for.”
“Of the houses we’ve had test positive, half of them were ones we never would’ve suspected,” Fenn said.
A common misconception is that only cooking meth causes contamination. But traces of meth get into the carpet and the walls and the air ducts whenever users smoke in their homes.
In 2004, the Utah Health Department reported 107 clandestine meth labs in Utah. Ten years later, there was only one.
There are usually no obvious signs of contamination unless someone completes a sample test inside the home.
“It can be cleaned up; that’s the good news,” he said.
As a certified inspector, Fenn conducts swab tests in at least three 10-by-10-centimeter spots in a home. If the swabs test positive at a lab for more than 1 microgram of meth per 100 square centimeters, state law requires the house should be cleaned and decontaminated.
“That’s what people don’t realize is that just smoking it can contaminate the house,” Fenn said.
But while there is plenty of information about how meth harms adults, evidence is scarce on the secondhand effects of meth inside a contaminated home.
“That’s where a lot of the controversy comes up,” Fenn said.
There’s little research on how meth contamination hurts residents in a home, though exposure could cause the same, though lesser, reactions that meth users experience like liver or kidney problems and lung disorders.
Young children can be particularly vulnerable if they crawl around on the carpet, Fenn explained. Meth can damage their neurological development or immune system as they are a lot more susceptible to adverse effects than a healthy adult.
A growing number of Utah real estate agents are requesting meth-contamination testing, preferring to know about possible contamination before closing a deal with buyers.
“There are so many hazards that we deal with in our environment. Let’s take care of the ones that we can control,” Fenn said.
His team conducts a meth-contamination test an average of one in every 15 homes they inspect. The test is cheap insurance compared with spending thousands in remodeling only to find contamination afterward.
Enter cleaning crew stage right
The first thing Herbert needs to know when he starts cleanup for a house is how high the contamination levels are. The crew decontaminates the entire home, but there are usually rooms that need extra attention.
“Bathrooms are a common place for meth smokers,” he said. “Laundry closets are good. Anywhere that has a fan that blows out.”
He also finds small clues inside a home. Deadbolts on closets. Holes in the wall from a violent user. Any porous furniture or materials need to be thrown out before the cleaning process starts, including couches, carpets and most electronics.
“I’m adamant about carpet,” Herbert said. “If it’s contaminated, I can’t save it. I just won’t. Too much risk.”
The team members usually break the furniture they remove from the house to prevent anyone from stealing the contaminated items from their dumpster truck. The waste is taken to the dump as hazardous material and quickly buried in authorized areas.
“Just don’t ever ask me to save a flat-screen TV because that ain’t gonna happen,” Herbert said with a laugh. “I tried, I already know it can’t be done.”
Some of the hardest homes he’s cleaned belong to grandparents. In one incident, a grandmother had taken one of her grandchildren under her roof. But police later discovered the grandchild was smoking meth inside the home.
“That’s 60, 70 years of this lady’s life that I’ve got to just throw away because you can’t save it,” Herbert said. “It’s all sorts of houses. Meth will get anyone, that’s the way I look at it.”
Another common situation is what happens to “house flippers,” homebuyers who repurpose rundown homes. These homeowners can lose thousands if they put in new carpet and paint before testing for meth contamination.
“Once it’s disrupted, it floats through the air and gets into stuff,” he said.
After tossing the carpet and furniture, his team members divide the cleaning process into dry and wet procedures. First, they thoroughly vacuum the floors and the air ducts. For the wet process, they run chemicals inside the ducts and scrub all the walls and ceilings three times. The chemicals need to sit for four to six hours to neutralize the meth. The workers also scrub any hard surfaces and most appliances.
“In meth cleanup, asbestos is the only thing that takes precedence over meth,” Herbert said. “It’s the only thing that can be cleaned before me.”
Some companies charge more for cleaning but use softer chemicals, according to Fenn. Cheaper companies might use harsh chemicals that sometimes corrode metal hinges, sink fixtures or cabinet hardware.
Herbert’s team takes about 14 days to clean an average 2,200-square-foot home. The manual labor is usually done in a week, but contamination testing before and after the cleaning takes time to process in the lab.
An ounce of prevention is slightly cheaper
Certified home inspectors and cleaning teams are not the only ones who can conduct contamination tests. Free meth contamination testing kits are available at the Utah County Health Department.
Although homebuyers are the most frequent demographic who test, the kits are available for real estate agents, renters, homeowners and everyone in between. The kit comes with instructions and tools for collecting a sample from a home and sending it to a lab for a small fee.
“The $45 is a cheap way for an individual owner to see if there is any reason to worry about it,” said Chris Davis, the program manager of solid and hazardous waste at the Health Department.
The department usually hands out 100-150 kits a year and provides an online comprehensive list of decontamination specialists who can verify results of individual tests.
If law enforcement or certified inspectors report high levels of meth contamination, the Health Department oversees the cleaning process and ensures the home is cleaned. The house is barred from occupancy until the department issues a written report that the residence is drug-free.
“Recently we haven’t had issues with labs, it’s been more with the users,” said Steve Alder, the bureau director of solid and hazardous waste at the Health Department.
According to data from the department, nearly 28 percent of individuals admitted to substance abuse treatment programs were using meth. Of those in treatment, about 75 percent were women and mothers.
“It’s used by a lot of different people in a lot of different circumstances,” said Karla Bartholomew, a licensed environmental health scientist with the Salt Lake County Health Department.
Salt Lake County does not offer free test kits but will refer citizens to state-certified decontamination specialists. Residents in both counties can contact their local health departments for help in contamination testing, as “it can be a very daunting and scary process.”
“But there’s no reason to be confused,” Bartholomew added.
No rhyme or reason to contamination
The best practice is to do a meth test on every house, Fenn advised. He finds meth in places from apartments to construction sites to Brigham Young University student housing.
A higher percentage of the drug is found in apartment complexes like BYU housing, as there is a higher number of people who are moving in and out.
“There’s a lot of scenarios, but there really isn’t a stereotype I’ve come across in the last decade,” he said. “We need to be aware of it, not be scared of it and hide our heads in the sand, but face it head on.”
Then, there is the concern for the health of family members living in a contaminated home.
“It is an issue, it’s going to hurt your house, but recognize the sign not just in the homes but also with people,” Fenn said.
The cost of a quick test or house cleaning is a small price instead of remodeling twice, Atkin said.
“The majority of my work is found in the real estate transaction due diligence period,” she added. “They’ll clean it up before they move in or they find out that their house for sale has it.”
Herbert agreed. He’s traveled everywhere from Logan to Payson, Lehi to St. George, even parts of southern Idaho. He is traveling to Moab soon to decontaminate two more houses.
All the homes start to run together after a while, and it’s easier for his crew to talk about where they haven’t cleaned rather than where they have been.
“That’s how bad it is,” Herbert said. “The house in Lehi? You’d have never suspected it. You’d think this is the nicest neighborhood on Earth. But it’s there, it’s there.”