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Whatcom County weighing less stringent cleanup standards for meth use contamination

Whatcom County is considering a less stringent approach to cleanup requirements for properties contaminated by methamphetamine use.

Doing so would encourage property owners to test and clean up such sites, Whatcom County Health Department officials said.

The department manages such cleanups for all of Whatcom County.

The proposed change is set for a public hearing before the Whatcom County Council on March 3. The council will decide whether the health department can provide what’s called technical assistance instead of forcing property owners to go through a more formal enforcement process that is tougher and more expensive.

The council, sitting as the Health Board, already has looked at the proposed rule change.

State law requires the enforcement approach for properties contaminated by methamphetamine production. The Washington state Department of Health regulates cleanup of such meth labs, which are declining in number because production has moved mainly to large labs in Mexico.

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.

As of Jan. 10, the state and Whatcom County require cleanup if tests show methamphetamine contamination levels at 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters and higher. The previous threshold was 0.1 microgram per 100 square centimeters.

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

When it comes to use, 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.

Under the existing county cleanup requirements — what’s referred to as enforcement — the owner of a contaminated property must hire a licensed cleanup company, which is costly. A notice of the contamination also is put on the property’s title.

“There’s no incentive now for people to self-test and self-report because it will be treated like a meth lab,” said Jeff Hegedus, environmental health supervisor for the county health department. “Will that get us what we want?”

Enforcement discourages cleanup when it come to properties contaminated just by use, according to Regina Delahunt, director of the county health department.

The proposal still would protect the public, she said, adding it was a “good balance.”

“It provides more assurance because right now we don’t know about properties out there because people aren’t telling us. So if you move into a rental unit you have no way of knowing whether somebody has used or hasn’t used in a unit,” Delahunt said. “Without the enforcement piece hanging out there, people will call us. People do want information about how to clean it up.”

With technical assistance, the health department would provide information about testing and cleanup, for example, as well as make sure the property owner follows the guidelines. It wouldn’t automatically require a cooperative property owner to hire a licensed company, depending on the level of contamination, nor would the information about contamination go on a property’s title.

“As long as it is a use site, not a drug manufacturing site, and the owner is cooperating in completion of cleanup, we will not pursue enforcement and a notice will not appear on their title,” Delahunt explained.

“Under the revised rules we would have the option of enforcement, including notice on title, for use sites if we felt enforcement would be necessary to ensure cleanup,” she added. “Enforcement is mandatory for manufacturing sites under state law.”

The proposal goes before the County Council as the health department finds itself managing cleanup of more sites contaminated by meth use.

The health department dealt with a total of 43 newly contaminated sites in 2014, according to Hegedus.

“It’s still such a tiny number for all the places people are smoking up,” Hegedus said of the overall numbers.

That’s compared to 16 in 2013.

Growing awareness from property buyers, renters and law enforcement is driving the increase, health department officials said. That growth in interest is expected to continue.

“What we are anticipating is we’re going to see renters and home purchasers get more educated,” Hegedus said, with more likely to test a space before buying or renting and asking the health department for information on how to do so.

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.

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