Meth testing: $52m on an irrational fear

Irrational fear about trace elements of meth has driven the Government to waste $52 million on testing and housing repairs. Health experts tell Baz Macdonald the money would be much better spent finding and fixing mould and asbestos that kill tenants.

The biggest home owner in New Zealand, the state-owned Housing New Zealand Corp, has revealed it spent 52 times more last year hunting for the tiniest trace elements of a harmless contaminant than it spent looking for mould and asbestos, which kill dozens of children each year.

Figures released under the Official Information Act by Housing NZ show it spent $51.9 million on testing and remediation of meth on its properties in the last financial year, up from $21 million the previous year. Last year’s spending represented 10 percent of its entire annual maintenance and improvement budget, or the equivalent of an average of $8,000 per property. However, in the 2016 financial year, it spent only $433,623 on the testing and remediation of mould and $639,873 on asbestos.

Housing health and drug experts say a mania about meth has created a scam industry for testing and repairing houses with just trace elements that are less harmful than fly spray. Meanwhile, landlords spend hardly any money to deal with the mould and asbestos that regularly cause bronchiolitis, pneumonia and mesothelioma that can lead to death.

A boom industry has grown up in the last five years around testing and cleaning of properties that test positive for minute amounts of methamphetamine, which are far less dangerous than widely perceived. Houses deemed contaminated with meth often have no more meth in them than found present on every bank note in the country, experts point out.

NZ Drug Foundation president Ross Bell said the science does not back up the need for such an industry and it has played on the fears of New Zealand people in order to make a profit.

More concerning, he said the Government has fallen for these scare tactics and created new standards and an Act amendment, currently before a select committee, which will unjustifiably perpetuate this culture of fear.

He called the meth testing and remediation industry “the biggest scam this country has ever seen”.

A new meth testing standard was released this year by Standards NZ, raising the maximum acceptable level of meth contamination to 1.5 micrograms per 100cm2 from 0.5. The National Government also presented an amendment to the Residential Tenancies Act in July which would give landlords more rights in testing for meth on their properties and, as a result, would cement this new standard into law.

Housing NZ has shown a strong response to this meth contamination movement. In 2013, there were only 28 state houses found to be contaminated by meth, however, as the meth testing industry has grown, so have these numbers. As of last year, 688 state housing properties were found to be contaminated and were unoccupied as a result.

Housing NZ chief executive Paul Commons told Newsroom meth contamination poses a “severe health risk” and they see this first and foremost as a health issue.

Do the experts agree?

Massey University applied environmental chemist Dr Nick Kim has been involved with this issue since 2010 when he was consulted on the original guidelines constructed by the Ministry of Health on the remediation of meth laboratories.

He, like many of the nearly 2000 other scientists who submitted on the meth testing standard instituted this year, believes this industry is unnecessary and there is little scientific justification for the level of scrutiny meth contamination is receiving.

“I don’t think there was ever a need for a meth testing industry in ordinary houses.”

What people don’t realise, Kim said, is 1.5 micrograms per 100cm2 is a such a small quantity that it is at a forensic level, completely undetectable unless looked for with advanced technology.

“That is millionths of a gram. It is a tiny amount.”

Kim reported to the NZ Drug Foundation last year that 0.5 micrograms, and now 1.5, are incredibly conservative numbers and that the lowest amount he could conceivably imagine a health effect occurring would be around 12 micrograms/100cm2.

This, Kim said, is his most conservative estimate and the lowest dose recorded to have a pharmaceutical effect is still 500 times higher than this 12-microgram figure, or over 3000 times higher than the 1.5 level set in the new standard.

“We are quibbling about a number which is hundreds of times lower than a dose that would be given when it is prescribed.”

This prescription is for Desoxyn, a 5mg dosage of methamphetamine, which is used to treat ADHD in children in the United States.

Even at 12 micrograms/100cm2, Kim said he would be perfectly comfortable living in that house with his family. It was a moot point, however, as he didn’t see any need to be concerned about meth smoke residue.

“I wouldn’t even bother to test for it.”

In fact, Kim said there is likely to be as much meth residue on a bank note as there are on the walls of homes people are being evicted from. Last year, Fair Go did a test in Auckland which showed 100 percent of bank notes had meth residue on them and 60% had levels higher than the 0.5 microgram standard at the time.

“People were probably removing walls for having less residue on them than existed on the notes in their wallet.”

Yet, Kim asked, why is it there is a health panic over these levels on a wall when there was never one over the contents of our wallets?

What are the health risks at these levels?

Housing NZ said there were “potential” health risks of this level of meth contamination, but were unspecific about what those risks were, or provided any evidence of their effect.

Even the newest standard failed to specify what these health risks are.

Director of the housing and health research programme at the University of Otago, Philippa Howden-Chapman, said this is because no evidence of adverse health effects from a meth contaminated home exist.

“I looked at this in some detail a couple of years ago and I couldn’t find a single instance of where there was someone hospitalised for just being in a house where someone has smoked meth.”

Like Kim, Howden-Chapman wondered why it was meth testing was receiving so much attention from the Government, when there was no evidence of its ill-effects, especially when there is overwhelming evidence of the health effects other aspects of housing are having on young New Zealanders.

“Thirty thousand children are hospitalised each year from preventable housing related diseases – asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis. Children who are hospitalised for these housing related illnesses are 10 times more likely to die. On average, 20 children a year die from housing-related diseases. So, that is what we should be worrying about.”

“How many of them go ill from meth [contamination] rather than being cold, damp, mouldy and unsafe? Absolutely none,” Howden-Chapman said. “We are concentrating on the wrong thing.”

Howden-Chapman said the effort and money the Government is putting into meth contamination could be far better spent on housing issues which actually do result in health problems, and many of which are rooted in the buildings themselves.

“The most serious health issues relate to the fact that we have a building code that hasn’t been updated and we have very low standards, particularly for rental housing which is older stock.”

Rental housing, generally, has people of a lower income in them, Howden-Chapman said, it is often in a worse condition and lack important modern housing fixtures such as insulation and double glazing. That means they are harder to heat and more likely to hold moisture, allowing mould to develop.

“A minority of people are very sensitive to mould and we have some nasty moulds in New Zealand. For most people, they are unsightly and depressing, but some people are very allergic to them.”

In most cases, mould allergies result in respiratory problems such as asthma, which is among the most common cause of child hospitalisation in NZ and the third-highest cause of death. However, in more rare cases, mould can attack the nervous systems of children, resulting in cognitive and behavioural changes as well as ataxia and convulsions.

Lead paint and asbestos also much more dangerous

Older houses might also contain lead paint and asbestos, Howden-Chapman said.

“You are much more likely to get ill, very ill, if you are in a house with lead paint, of which there is no safe level and has terrible effects on children. But, [unlike meth contamination] we don’t have any requirements that apartments or houses have to be lead-free.”

Nick Kim said even legal substances are documented as being more harmful to children than meth contamination, such as pyrethroide’s from fly spray or nicotine residue.

“Nicotine residue is actually, in terms of its toxicity, higher than methamphetamine. It is used as a pesticide, or has been, in agriculture.”

With contamination of surfaces like these, Kim said there are three pathways for ingestion - touch, orally or inhalation.

With meth contamination, the primary pathways are orally, or through touching (where the contaminant is absorbed through the skin). Because meth contamination is already on the surfaces, inhalation is negligible as a pathway.

The health concerns in Housing NZ statements, and the new standard, are often aimed at young children, who it is assumed will ingest meth contaminants on surfaces by touching them and then putting their hands in their mouths.

Kim said “even with 12[micrograms], they would have to stand there all day doing that” for there to be any chance of a reaction.

“Even there, I don’t believe you would see anything in terms of effects that a doctor would be able to recognise.”

Despite the evidence of harm caused by housing issues such as mould and asbestos, and the lack of evidence for meth contamination, the remediation costs from Housing NZ far from reflect this balance.

Housing NZ spent just over $1 million testing for mould and asbestos, but 52 times more on meth.

The new standard

With all of this tangible data on the adverse effects of contaminants such as mould, lead and asbestos, many experts shared the view that this new standard for meth contamination was a diversion of the real issues at play.

“Why are you presenting a standard just to test for one residue, when there are many internal problems that a house could have?” Kim asked.

“There is actually a list of chemical and biological things you could check to make sure that a house is safe for a child to live in. That could well be wrapped up into another kind of NZ standard if they had wanted to write one.”

However, Kim said the new standard does contain several useful updates for dealing with meth contamination.

In particular, raising the maximum acceptable limit of meth contamination from 0.5 microgram to 1.5/100cm2 has resulted in 40-60 percent of cases falling below the standard which would have been previously exceeded it.

“That has been the improvement. Now fewer are being caught in the trap.”

This was evidenced when Housing NZ released 50 houses for re-habitation upon the announcement of these new levels. It is worth noting that 50 represents less than 10 percent of the homes Housing NZ then had uninhabited due to meth contamination.

Houses ‘unnecessarily uninhabitable'

Despite this improvement, Kim said, the conservative low number still meant that a large number of houses are unnecessarily being deemed uninhabitable.

“Personally, I would have gone a bit higher than that. Say, if they had gone to 3 micrograms that would have been maybe 90 percent of the problem gone.”

There is good reason that the number wasn’t raised higher, however, as 1.5 micrograms is a standard used in many countries around the world and so “actually quite defensible” as the new level, Kim said.

“You wouldn’t necessarily want to be the first jurisdiction around the world to set it at a higher number.”

Meth labs are different from meth smoking

Where the new standard becomes dubious is in its focus on meth smoking as a contaminant, when all previous guidelines were specifically for the testing and remediation of meth laboratories.

Where there is little evidence that meth contamination for smoking causes harm, Kim said that meth laboratories pose a real and significant health risk due to the chemicals used in the manufacture process.

“A meth lab is at the high end of the risk scale, with multiple chemicals and multiple exposure pathways including inhalation. Whereas, residues on a wall are way on the other end of the scale.”

“For better or worse, this new standard includes residues that have come from smoking and not just a lab.”

NZ Drug Foundation president Ross Bell was a strong opponent of the new standard, and protested the committee’s reliance on research relating specifically to the manufacture of meth, including a report from the NZ Institute for Environmental Science and Research (ESR).

“The ESR report, and then all of the documents they drew upon, were about meth labs, not meth use. So, in our minds the standards should not apply to meth use at all,” Bell said.

“But it will be applied to [meth use]. Housing NZ will apply it to meth use.”

Minister for Building and Housing Nick Smith told Newsroom in July the presence of meth itself is not what makes a building uninhabitable, rather it is the chemicals involved in the manufacture that are at issue. Yet, Smith supported the new standard in which meth contamination from smoking was the focus.

“[The new standard’s maximum acceptable level] is based on the presumption that a home was used only for smoking and not manufacture,” Smith said.

A conflict of interest

Bell’s greatest concern regarding the new standard, was that a significant proportion of the committee were representatives of the meth testing and cleaning industry.

“Half of the committee that Standards NZ convened to develop these new guidelines were deeply, deeply conflicted. They were either meth testers, meth clean-up or the labs that conducted the results.”

Of the 21 consultants brought on to develop this latest standard, 10 were representatives of the meth testing and cleaning industry, including businesses such as MethSolutions, Contaminated Site Solutions and Cleaning Systems.

“We immediately [sent Official Information Act requests for] the disclosures of the conflicts, but that was declined. Standards NZ declined all of our requests.

“The reply back was simply ‘We are managing the conflicts of interest’, without disclosing how they were actually being managed,” Bell said.

He believed putting time and money into more government guidelines and laws around meth contamination will only feed the “hysteria” this industry relies on.

“I think the standards are only going to perpetuate that fear and confusion. The standards don’t actually help us a hell of a lot.”

The industry is special

Nick Kim told Newsroom, in all his research he has not encountered a residential meth testing and cleaning industry like has sprung up in NZ in any other country.

“I think this is the only country where this has happened, where they have tested for meth in your house.”

Kim agreed the industry has thrived because of a culture of fear around meth in NZ, a fear that has grown out of incidents such as the Antonie Dixon case where, while high on meth, Dixon severed the hands of two women with a samurai sword and killed another man with a home-made sub-machine gun.

“It’s partly scaremongering, but partly the scare is already out there.”

Ross Bell said the industry has capitalised on this fear and, as a result, “it is now assumed that every house in NZ is somehow contaminated with meth and that all the houses need to be pulled down and rebuilt”.

Meth testing and clean-up has become a part of the real estate industry, Bell said, with landlords expected to test their properties before leasing a property and private owners expected to test before bringing their property to the market.

How a mania developed

Now other industries are trying to profit too. Bell said the Drug Foundation gets calls from builders and real estate agents wanting advice on how they can get involved in meth testing and cleaning.

The Meth Industry Association was formed this year in an attempt to self-regulate this booming industry. In a statement to Newsroom, a representative said its goals are “to bring confidence in testing standards, ethical standards and facilitate compliance.”

The media had also played a role in growing this issue in New Zealand. Bell said many stories published, particularly in the regional papers, were “fed and driven” by the meth testing and cleaning industry.

An example of this is an article published last year on Newshub, in which the head of meth testing and cleaning business Envirocheck, David Kilburn, was reported saying meth contamination is “a billion-dollar problem” and that "some of those houses are going to cost $100,000 to put right".

Bell also points to more subtle factors in reporting, such as accompanying pictures of people working in full hazmat suits, an image which immediately applies an unrealistic scale to the issue.

The Meth Industry Association representative said the high demand for meth testing was “in part driven by a plethora of media coverage raising concern among the many groups who feel very legitimately concerned and affected by Methamphetamine contamination”.

Philippa Howden-Chapman bemoaned the industry’s focus on meth alone and wished there was a focus on testing for credible sources of health issues, such as mould and lead.

“We want people to inspect houses so that people know they are not going into a house that will make them ill. But it should be things that have research evidence behind it and not just because someone says ‘I’m going into to test for things because I can make a lot of money from it.’”

What is the effect of all this?

The proposed amendment to the Residential Tenancies Act was opposed by the Green Party, because then co-leader Metiria Turei said meth had a negative effect on families.

Talking to Newsroom in July, Turei said Housing New Zealand had been deeming houses uninhabitable, evicting families with nowhere else to go and, in some cases, blaming them for the contamination “whether they have got evidence for that or not”.

Indeed, Tenancy advocate Niki Smith said they were often approached by tenants who had been evicted from their home because of a positive meth test, and without a baseline test these people had no way to prove they were not at fault.

Ross Bell said this was particularly egregious in social housing, where the tenants are by definition vulnerable people. It was important that even if these people are smoking meth, we focus on keeping them in housing so that these issues can be dealt with in a safe, stable environment.

Yet, Housing NZ is evicting people from houses found positive for meth contamination. In its statements, it highlighted these people are relocated to new housing. That is, only if they are not thought to be responsible for the contamination, in which case Housing NZ has commonly pursued the tenant for the cost of testing and remediation and denied them access to state housing for 12 months.

‘Tenants blacklisted without proof’

In one such Manukau Tenancy Tribunal case, Housing NZ sought $15,578.93 in testing and decontamination costs against Iosefo Lematua, who successfully argued that without a baseline test there was no proof he was the culprit. However, the case wasn’t adjudicated until almost a year after his eviction - which means, despite the case being dismissed, Lematua still suffered the 12-month blacklisting by Housing NZ.

In many cases, it is the landlords as much as the tenants who are suffering under the wave of this meth testing trend, with the NZ insurance council estimating claims in excess of $30 million a year as a result of meth testing and cleaning.

It said claims have continued to steadily rise over recent years and are now being made with the regularity of over 100 properties a month.

Nick Kim said the culture of fear from tenants has put a demand on landlords to test and remediate properties, with some tenants even claiming their health problems were caused by levels of residue around the current standards.

“In my mind, it was clearly not possible,” Kim said. “People get a little bit fixated on it and mis-attribution occurs.”

But Kim said, despite what these meth remediation companies might say, “there is nothing stopping anyone from washing their own walls”.

Kim recommended that anyone concerned could easily reach acceptable levels simply by washing their walls with a combination of a caustic cleaning agent like sugar soap and any water soluble cleaner.

“Meth is persistent, but it is not eternal,” Kim said. “It is an organic compound, and like organic compounds it does break down and get lost from walls over time.”

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