Whatcom health officials: More properties contaminated by illegal meth use

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 25, 2014 

The Whatcom County Health Department could be managing the cleanup of twice as many properties contaminated by methamphetamine use this year compared to 2013, according to an official responsible for such projects.

The agency dealt with nine such sites in the first quarter alone versus 16 for all of 2013, Jeff Hegedus, the department's environmental health supervisor, told the Whatcom County Health Board at its last meeting in April.

The Whatcom County Council functions as the Health Board.

Growing awareness from property buyers, renters and law enforcement is driving the increase, Hegedus told the board.

Meth is a highly toxic and addictive drug that can be injected, snorted, smoked or ingested.

It's the residue left behind - on surfaces like walls, carpets, curtains and countertops - when someone smokes meth that contaminates a property and poses a health risk to occupants.

Dizziness, nausea, headaches, throat irritation and weight loss are among the symptoms people might experience if they're in a contaminated space.

Even as it expects to continue seeing more cases, the health department is no longer receiving money, as of this year, from the Washington state Department of Ecology to oversee the cleanup of properties contaminated by meth use - costing the county about $11,000 in the first quarter.

Grappling with funding loss, county officials are considering how to pay for the cost of managing cleanup, which includes staff time. Officials also are examining their approach to regulating remediation.

That could involve charging a fee to property owners, who already are responsible for paying an estimated $8,000 to $30,000 to decontaminate properties to an acceptable level by hiring a state-approved contractor to do things like rip out carpeting, light fixtures, cabinets and exhaust fans. If levels are high enough, sheetrock and insulation must be removed as well, according to Theresa Borst, president of Lake Stevens-based Bio Clean Inc.

The cost could be even higher.

In one recent case, Catholic Housing Services of Western Washington spent $300,000 to clean eight apartments contaminated by a tenant smoking meth at its Kateri Court property in downtown Bellingham, according to Steve Powers, the organization's division director, and county health department officials.

Private property owners also have had to deal with the issue, as was the case in November when renters of a house at 618 E. Myrtle St. in Bellingham reported being sickened by residue left behind by a former tenant smoking meth. That property is nearing the end of its cleanup.

"It can happen anywhere to anyone," said Hegedus, who praised Catholic Housing Services for its diligence in decontaminating its apartments.

CLEANUP STANDARDS

Whatcom County is one of two counties in the state to require that spaces contaminated by meth use be cleaned up, which officials here mandated starting in 2005. The other is Pierce County.

"You just don't want people moving into a place that's a health risk," Hegedus said.

The Washington state Department of Health regulates cleanup of meth labs, which are declining in number because production has moved mainly to large labs in Mexico.

Like the state and Pierce County, Whatcom County requires cleanup if tests show contamination levels at 0.1 microgram per 100 square centimeters and higher. That level is among the strictest in the nation.

Whatcom County officials are deciding whether to raise the threshold that triggers cleanup - a step that the state Department of Health is taking as well after being petitioned to change the rule. If it does after a public hearing July 22, the new state threshold would go into effect in September.

State and county officials said that 0.1 microgram standard was set at the lowest level that could be detected through lab testing at the time of adoption. The idea at the time was "any is too much," Hegedus said. It wasn't based on an assessment of risks to people's health, officials said.

They're considering the standard adopted by California after a 2009 study by that state's Environmental Protection Agency determined that 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters was based on health risks that would protect the most vulnerable populations - pregnant women and young children. The state Department of Health has recommended adopting the 1.5 standard.

That proposal has received support from organizations and agencies that include the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, which would adopt the new state standard; the state Department of Commerce, which provides funding for public housing projects; the Association of Washington Housing Authorities; and the Tacoma Housing Authority, which spent $2.9 million on cleanup after it focused on testing its units for meth starting about two years ago.

Michael Mirra, executive director for the Tacoma Housing Authority, said he didn't believe his agency had unusual problems with meth but that it did stand out in terms of how seriously it handled the issue.

Also supporting the state proposal is the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, which represents the owners and operators of more than 700 rental properties across the state, and Tacoma-based Northwest Justice Project, whose legal aid clients include people in subsidized housing who are left temporarily homeless because they must vacate contaminated properties - leaving behind everything but medicine and identification.

As for Whatcom County: "What we're trying to do is ensure that cleanup standards are based on the best possible science that we have. Right now, the best possible science says that 1.5 micrograms is the protective measure and that's for the most vulnerable population," said Regina Delahunt, director of the county health department.

"You always have to balance the science with the impact that you have on property owners," she added.

RAISING THE THRESHOLD

That impact includes the fact that a Whatcom County property contaminated by methamphetamine has that information recorded on its title. Its cleanup is recorded on the title as well, once that has occurred.

Raising the threshold from the current level actually would encourage property owners to voluntarily test, according to Dave Finet, executive director of the Opportunity Council, a nonprofit that has 40 housing units for its clients.

"Nobody wants to test because any small amount can turn into a mitigation situation," Finet said of the current standard. "It makes it so people are reluctant to test."

Raising the threshold to 1.5 also would cost property owners less because they could clean to that level.

And it wouldn't be so prohibitive for apartment complexes like Kateri Court, 110 E. Chestnut St., that share common areas and exhaust pipes to clean contaminated spaces. In that case, meth residue had spread from one client smoking meth in one apartment to seven others through a shared ventilation system.

Part of the cost of the $300,000 cleanup included replacing the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.

The highest contamination level was in the apartment where the tenant smoked meth, at 8.3 micrograms per 100 square centimeters, according to the Whatcom County Health Department.

That apartment still would have been cleaned up under the new proposed level - "It's still a very stringent standard," Powers said - but the cross-contamination in the other units wouldn't have hit the threshold for cleanup.

A less stringent threshold also would have made a difference for the Tacoma Housing Authority. Of the 247 units that were tested, nearly half were found to be contaminated under the existing standards.

If the new threshold was in place, about 54 would have been considered contaminated, according to the Tacoma Housing Authority.

As for Whatcom County, it "was very progressive in wanting to decontaminate illicit use sites," Hegedus said, noting the concern for public health.

"The question becomes now with the changes and the evolution of the use of meth, how do we keep up with it?" he added.

County officials will be deciding just that as the Health Board has asked the Public Health Advisory Board and the county health department to draft new policy for their consideration.

STATE METH RULES

More on the Washington state Department of Health's consideration of a less stringent standard for methamphetamine decontamination of properties polluted by meth labs is at this doh.wa.gov webpage.

TESTING FOR METH

Wondering if your house or apartment has been contaminated by methamphetamine residue and need to know what to do? Contact the Whatcom County Health Department at 360-676-6724, and press the number zero on your phone.

Meth residue tests kits also can be purchased online.

In Whatcom County, Roto-Rooter Plumbing Service in Bellingham has been licensed by the state to clean up properties contaminated by meth. It also can test for the presence of meth. Its phone number is 360-733-0760.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com .

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