When my cat ran out the door, I ran after her. I found her on the neighbor’s back porch, perched on the top of three or four large bags of cat litter. There was nothing too unusual about that except that the neighbors didn’t have a cat. I didn’t think much of it until the normally calm neighbor, triggered by seeing me on her porch, screamed at me to get off of her property. She later posted all kinds of no trespassing signs all over the outside of the house and taped up black plastic garbage bags on the inside of her windows.
I learned later that lots of bags of cat litter (used in processing meth) when no one owns a cat, paranoia, aggression and concern about neighbors being on and around the property and the act of covering up windows, are all signs of a meth lab.
Over the next few days I smelled something sweet, like cotton candy or ether, drifting in through an open window. That was when I knew. My neighbor was cooking methamphetamine, an illegal drug that is easy to manufacture from basic household chemicals. Yes. I called police and eventually the neighbor was caught, but the house was never, to my knowledge, decontaminated. While that’s not uncommon, it can be deadly serious to your health if you end up renting in a contaminated house or apartment.
People can set up a meth lab out of a backpack, but they often manufacture it where they live, including in apartments. Experts say that contamination caused by the toxic chemicals used to make meth can last more than a decade and it only takes one round of cooking, less than four hours, to contaminate a property.
The problem with ignoring meth-cooking neighbors and deciding to “live and let live,” means you’re at risk for organ failure, blindness, chemical burns on internal organs from breathing the air or just by being in the vicinity and even death. About the only thing worse than living near an apartment where meth is being cooked, is moving into a house or apartment where meth was being cooked.
The residue in a house or apartment used as a meth lab can make people sick within hours of moving in. Most people attribute the nausea, headaches and eye and skin irritation to allergies, not exposure to meth.
Signs a math lab may have been present in a home:
1. Yellow discoloration on walls, drains, sinks and showers.
2. You experience burning in your eyes, an itchy throat, or a metallic taste in your mouth.
3. You may also experience breathing problems when in the home.
4. In homes with propane tanks or fire extinguishers, look for blue discoloration on the valves of the tanks. Metal, especially brass fittings, such as those in a bathroom or around a sink, may also be rusted.
5. Trash around the home may include soda bottle with holes and/or tubing sticking out of them, or one-gallon plastic gas cans around the house, in the basement or in storage areas.
6. Fire detectors have had batteries removed, are missing completely, or have been taped off.
7. You may smell strong odors in the house that smell more like things you’d find in a garage, such as solvent and paint thinner.
8. There is a strong odor of ammonia that make you think of cat litter, even though the former owners didn’t have animals.
9. The former tenant’s power bills may be markedly higher than the bills of other units in the complex. Ask your power or utility company if the bills for your unit have been substantially higher than other units in the complex before you rent.
Even though about 20 states have laws requiring meth contamination cleanup of apartments and homes, some landlords may not be aware the home was used for cooking meth unless the occupants were arrested, caught in the act or caused a fire or explosion. Even one incident of cooking meth in an apartment or house is enough to contaminate the home.
Several years ago, the Associated Press reported that Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) records that they obtained showed evidence that nearly 2,000 motels and hotel rooms had been used as meth labs during a five-year period. Those were only the rooms reported to the DEA by their owners, so the numbers are probably far greater.
Not all landlords are anxious to ensure that their properties are drug free before renting. They may paint over yellowed walls or replace the carpet, but effective cleanup can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Just testing a home can cost between $2,000 and $20,000. Cleaning and decontamination costs go even higher. Wallboard must be replaced and extensive replacement of other items like insulation, carpet, carpet padding, ceiling tiles and even flooring are often necessary to clean up the home to meet standards.
Don’t think just low-income homes and apartments are at risk. Upscale homes and apartment complexes can also be meth labs. Trust your instincts — if something feels, smells or just seems off when you tour a rental, find another rental.