Newsroom Special Inquiry

Long read: Meth-testing’s ‘wild west’

In part two of a deep dive into the businesses and the people behind the meth-testing debacle, Branko Marcetic speaks to some players in the 'multi-layered' failure.

Read part one here

One individual that looms particularly large in our meth debate is Jackie Wright, the Flinders University professor who submitted a research proposal to the Government to study the health effects of meth residue in residential houses.

Members of the industry pivot from acknowledging no studies exist and offering to rectify it, to claiming robust international research has been tragically ignored. When pressed, they invariably point to Wright, who has herself appeared in the media calling the Gluckman report biased. Yet even Wright’s own published research looks only at former laboratories — not properties where it’s simply been smoked.

Wright was commissioned by the Australian Crime Commission to write a report in 2009 on investigation levels for former drug labs, which put the level for meth at 0.5 μg/100cm2 (she also helped produce the Australian government’s 2011 investigation and remediation guidelines).

This 2009 report later formed part of the basis for the 2010 Ministry of Health guidelines that set the New Zealand standard to this level — and which Housing New Zealand used to start shunting tenants from its properties.

Wright told Newsroom that criticisms from the Gluckman report and figures like Nick Kim about the testing industry focusing purely on meth instead of the harmful chemicals that were once used in its manufacture in New Zealand is an “attempt to muddy the waters”.

“It’s purely about meth exposure,” she says.

Yet this clashes with the 2016 report that revealed meth-tester Nicholas Powell pushed for a lower standard in 2010 because meth was a “proxy” for a range of other contaminants.

Wright is also not convinced by the fact that doses of meth in pharmaceutical drugs are many thousands more than the residues that might be found in people’s homes. She says the intense, acute effect of taking a large dose is a “completely different type of exposure” to being “exposed to a concentration all day, every day”, which creates “chronic effects”.

“A toddler would need to be taking in the same amount of meth from the same exposed skin area day after day, for months and years."

Nick Kim says this is “unrealistic”.

“A toddler would need to be taking in the same amount of meth from the same exposed skin area day after day, for months and years,” he says, adding that it would be impossible given that the residue, once removed, wouldn’t appear the next day. In case, he says, such a residue would break down naturally after around four to six months.

Wright told Newsroom that her ongoing research into possible chronic health effects from third-hand meth residue is completely self-funded and not connected to the remediation and testing industry. “I have to talk to them, because a lot of the time they have individual case studies,” she says. She says her research proposal to the New Zealand government is independent.

Yet Simon Fleming, chair of the MTIANZ, had earlier told Newsroom that it was the MTIANZ that had submitted the proposal. When pressed, Wright says that “they have a copy of my research proposal, which, obviously, I said ‘Look, if you’re meeting with these guys feel free to put it forward'.”

Wright’s links to the industry don’t end there. MethSolutions' Miles Stratford’s paper delivered last year at the Melbourne conference was jointly presented with Wright. She says it was simply a presentation for the industry to “raise awareness” and that no one was paid. Stratford claims their names were simply put together to make the presentation fee more affordable.

Stratford and Wright both sit on the steering committee for the Methamphetamine & Other Illicit Drugs interest group for the Australasian Land & Groundwater Association (ALGA), a trade group for the contaminated land and groundwater industry. A key focus of the group is advocating for regulatory reform around assessment of drugs and their impacts on health and “the built environment”.

Wright recently did a webinar for ALGA, criticising the Gluckman report’s recommendations and talking about the potential health effects of low levels of meth residue alone.

“I haven’t come across any other toxicologists who are in line with Jackie's views,” says Nick Kim, though he doesn’t rule out that they exist.

This webinar was forwarded to Faulkner by Ryan Matthews, the chief executive of Australian testing company MethScreen, in what appears to be part of a campaign to reverse the real estate industry’s disillusionment with meth-testing.

In May, MethScreen put out a press release labelling the Gluckman report “reckless and dangerous”, and repeating many of the talking points used by industry members here, including the charge that the report was meant to clear the way for the Labour Government’s response to the housing crisis. The release quotes Wright calling the report “misleading and dangerous”.

Chemicals used to make methamphetamine found in an Auckland P lab. Photo: Getty Images

Meanwhile, much like Stratford in New Zealand, Matthews has made use of the Australian media. Matthews has been quoted in report after report after report — and even in Australian real estate industry news releases — making claims virtually indistinguishable from those of New Zealand meth-testers in years previous.

Wright also doubles as the director of Environmental Risk Sciences Pty Ltd (EnRiskS), a consulting firm whose work includes “development of remediation guidelines for clandestine drug laboratories”. It was under the rubric of EnRiskS that Wright produced the 2009 report on clan labs in Australia.

Wright denies there’s a conflict of interest, saying the firm doesn’t design remediation programs, that it’s separate from her research at Flinders University and that it merely gives advice on risk.

“All the stuff I do with methamphetamine companies is completely independent of testing and the remediation industry,” she says.

An industry of cowboys 

Questionable practices are not limited to a few major companies and industry figures in New Zealand. They appear endemic to the industry.

Few of those running meth-testing companies appear to have a background in a relevant science or even forensics. They’re former hair stylists, lawyers, taxi drivers, building surveyors, procurement specialists and more. In some cases their meth-testing companies appear to be their very first business ventures.

“There’s no barrier to entry,” says Bell. “Anyone could join this game.”

“I would've preferred it if the testing companies all have backgrounds in environmental impact assessments and human health assessments,” says Nick Kim.

Scotney Williams is a property investment consultant, well-respected expert on tenancy law, and founder of Grey Lynn-based Tenancy Practice Service, an organisation doing everything from consulting and training for property managers and landlords, to providing them with legal documents and manuals. Since 2015, he was also nominally the head of a meth-testing company, Meth Testing New Zealand, together with Nathaniel Hamilton, a former employee of Tenancy Practice Service.

Faulkner remembers when he became uneasy of the meth contamination panic, because it was the day he saw Williams, whom he respects, get up at a Barfoot and Thompson training session and give a speech explaining that every house must be tested for meth.

“Then at the end of it, he went, ‘We’ve just launched Meth Testing,’” he recalls.

His organisation’s website has various training videos around “dealing with different meth scenarios” and how “to handle the methamphetamine issue,” and urged landlords to insert a “meth clause” into their contracts and agreements. In 2016, a Herald article featured Williams urging landlords and home-buyers to get meth tests before renting or selling, without pointing out that he was also part of the industry that stood to benefit from such tests.

“I have a Bachelor of Science. Not specifically in forensics or this area, but at least I’ve worked in analytical laboratories, which is an awful lot more than many people that jumped into this business.”

In an emailed statement, Williams says he was simply a shareholder whose name was used to promote the business, and that he had no say over how it was run. He says he and Hamilton’s relationship became strained, and that “after a lengthy legal process I no longer own any shares in MTNZ.” Williams says he has “not received any profit or financial benefit whatsoever from MTNZ,” and that he still advises landlords that it’s best practice to test prior to a tenancy.

David Spalter ran a variety of businesses before starting his testing company, including a car repair company and several organic food stores. He differentiates himself from those he calls the “less qualified people in the industry".

“I have a Bachelor of Science,” he says. “Not specifically in forensics or this area, but at least I’ve worked in analytical laboratories, which is an awful lot more than many people that jumped into this business.”

Spalter says he took on meth-testing as a side business until becoming full-time around four years ago, even setting up franchisees. But many others “gave up their day jobs and went straight into it without any understanding of the science whatsoever”, he says.

Another man who saw opportunity in the meth-testing business is Jeff Twigge, a licensed building practitioner who runs the Palmerston North-based inspection company NZ House Surveys, which also carries out meth-testing. While Twigge refused to confirm or deny this was him, according to a 1997 Evening Standard report, a Jeff Twigge in Palmerston North worked a variety of odd jobs, including as a painter, taxi driver, and farm labourer, at one point donning a sandwich board with the words “This Man Wants a Job” during a particularly dry period of employment. Ten years ago he made headlines as a cybersquatter — someone who buys up domain names to later sell at an inflated price to the companies that want to use them.

Twigge appeared in a number of news stories over the last few years, warning that meth use was on the rise, charging that lab contamination can cause “cancers and heart attacks”, and warning that decontamination can cost many thousands of dollars.

Twigge says he’s “received significant training in meth-testing”, and that while he’s “not qualified to comment on whether the levels were correct”, sees dubious machinations behind the Gluckman report.

“I’d suspect that a lot of Gluckman’s report was politically motivated by a government under pressure to release housing stock,” he says.

Neville Petersson was a stay-at-home dad and self-described “serial entrepreneur” who was “looking around for an opportunity” when he started his meth-testing business in Hawke's Bay, he says. Characterising himself a “left-leaning liberal humanist”, Petersson is “very excited about Bitcoin” (which you can use to pay for his meth-testing services) and also serves as an administrator for the tough-on-crime Sensible Sentencing Trust in Napier.

Petersson was trained by, and bought a licence from, an organisation named Healthy Homes (NZ) Ltd (HHNZ), whose advertisement he saw on Trade Me while “looking for extra income streams”, and which his company website calls a “National Meth Testing licensing authority”.

Petersson’s company warns its customers that the meth-testing industry is “like the Wild West” — full of cowboys — and stresses that “WE ARE scientists” (emphasis in original). Petersson’s degree was in environmental science and sustainability, and his previous work experience includes running a marketing agency, and working as a personal trainer, insurance consultant and English Second Language teacher.

His company’s other point of difference is his relationship to HHNZ, boasting that it’s “the only Nationally accredited representatives for Healthy Homes (NZ) LTD in Hawkes Bay.”

“They did some more specific training and set me up with contacts, my kit and everything to do with the meth-testing business,” he says.

HHNZ no longer appears to exist — Petersson says they’ve “re-branded,” and their website now redirects to a company named Safeguard Specialists. An archived version of the HHNZ website reveals pages replete with grammatical and typographical errors, urging landlords to test their homes if they smell fresh paint, cat urine, rotten eggs or adhesives, and warning that failing to do so could cost as much as $50,000 in decontamination.

A screenshot of the archived version of the HHNZ website, promising 'piece of mind'. 

Gary and Denise van Wijk, the owners and operators at HHNZ, list only a nondescript “Methamphetamine property contamination testing Course” as part of their skills on their LinkedIn page, though they were involved in a number of businesses prior to HHNZ. According to Taranaki Daily News reports from 2004 and 2006, Denise van Wijk ran a business selling heat-resistant clothing and a lingerie store together with her sister. (HHNZ refused to talk to Newsroom for this report).

Petersson’s company is by no means the only one with questionable claims about accreditation. Auckland Steam ‘n’ Dry boasts the services of “a 2001 IICRC [Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification] certified ‘Master Restoration Technician’ and the most qualified Meth P cleaning decontamination specialist in New Zealand” as one of its “experienced qualified testers”. That specialist, Graeme Stephens, isn’t listed on the IICRC website. IICRC says Stephens “let this lapse some time ago”, and cautions that “having a Master status does not necessarily mean an individual is experienced in meth clean up”. (Stephens has only been “prioritized in meth p cleaning” since eight years ago).

NZ Sampling and Decontamination Services Ltd (NZSADS) also markets itself as “accredited” as both a testing and decontamination company, a conflict of interest that many other testing companies avoid (as of sometime in the last few weeks, its website no longer exists). It’s received $21,390 from the Auckland Council for meth-cleaning services since 2011. The supposedly accredited tester in question, Arthur Thomas Hawes, is a former taxi driver and director of Sovereign Taxis, who received his training from two companies. One is Forensic Pathways, a Perth-based consulting firm that also does both meth-testing and cleaning.

The second is Auckland-based Cleaning Systems, which offers three-day meth-sampling and decontamination courses for hundreds of dollars each. The listed trainer, who is no longer with the company, has a background in procurement and business systems for companies in the oil, gas, mining, water and clean tech sectors.

Managing Director Rosemary Pritchard says the company entered the field after it was initially “approached’ four or five years ago by a Utah-based meth-testing and cleaning company Apple Environmental, which was doing training seminars in New Zealand. Theirs isn’t the only New Zealand company trained by Apple.  

“This is an industry that’s booming in America,” she says.

There are also questions about companies that have received legitimate accreditation for meth-testing and sampling. International Accreditation New Zealand (IANZ) — the quasi-governmental entity touted as “New Zealand’s premier accreditation body” — has given its stamp of approval to six companies, a multi-step assessment that involves a hefty hourly fee, an application fee and an annual administration fee.

One of the accredited companies appears to no longer exist; another is Forensic and Industrial Science, the testing company involved in the dismantling of Kim Gouk’s home. One of its staff members, who sat on the committee that set the meth-testing standard, is also one of IANZ’s technical experts, advising IANZ assessors who decide whether or not to give accreditation to companies.

Another is MTIANZ chairman Simon Fleming’s company, Meth Xpert, which touts its IANZ accreditation as a selling point, assuring customers it means “you’re getting the best advice” rather than “putting yourself and any clients at risk”. Yet the MethXpert website is filled with dubious claims warning of health effects from being in a home where meth has simply been smoked in, advising that homes “may require demolishing” to be decontaminated, or cautioning that health problems can arise simply from closing curtains that have meth residue on them.

“It’s ridiculous propaganda,” says Anne Bardsley.

According to a 2016 report in the Te Awamutu Courier, one home-owner on an invalid’s benefit whose home was tested by Fleming was told it would cost $25,000 to decontaminate her house, on top of $3000 for the test itself, leaving her “insecure and frightened” for her future. Fleming told the paper her ceiling tiles, wallpaper, carpets, electrical fittings and more would have to be removed, before claiming that 80 percent of tested homes in Te Awamutu were contaminated, and recommending that anyone with a rental or new home has this test. The story closed with a plug for his company and its phone number. (Fleming says his company solely does testing and doesn’t give advice for remediation).

“I would love to see the industry disappear."

- NZ Drug Foundation chief executive Ross Bell

A spokesperson for IANZ stressed that it gives accreditation only to organisations based on their competence at specific testing and inspection activities, in this case, in accordance with the level set by Standards NZ.

“It is not the role of IANZ to monitor or assess publicity or advertising material distributed by accredited companies”, the spokesperson said. “However IANZ would be concerned if accredited organisations were making statements that could bring accreditation in general or IANZ in particular into disrepute.”

A multi-layered failure 

It’s perhaps understandable that the industry’s fiercest critics are not enthusiastic about its revival.

“I would love to see the industry disappear,” says Drug Foundation executive director NZ Ross Bell.

It’s not a view shared by all of its sceptics, however.

“People have a right to test if they want to,” says Kim.

Kim, like members of the industry themselves, doesn’t lay the blame entirely at the feet of the industry.

“The driving force behind the industry was partly being created by the public, and the industry responded to that concern,” he says.

“Everybody was following the guidelines set by the government,” says Spalter.

Seen from this vantage point, the meth-testing debacle was not solely the product of a rapacious industry, but a multi-layered failure of New Zealand’s institutions: the news media that stirred up panic around meth and uncritically broadcast the industry’s claims; the property industry that was “sucked in” by members of that same industry; and the government bodies that, instead of regulating the industry, gave it a prominent seat at the table setting policy around the issue.

At the same time, it appears to also have been driven by overseas pressures: not just Jackie Wright, a researcher with ties to the testing industry here and in Australia, but American and Australian testing companies who exported their business models by training and “certifying” companies here.

The Gluckman report has thrown a spanner in the works, denting the industry’s reputation, if not delivering a fatal blow. But the industry is nothing if not resilient.

And if its pushback against the Gluckman report’s conclusions doesn’t succeed, there’s always other options. New regulations around asbestos went into effect in April this year, a boon to the many meth-testing companies that branched out into asbestos-testing, seeing yet another market opportunity in this field. Jeff Twigge says the new requirements have already sent demand for his services skyrocketing.

“This may be the new meth,” he says. Twigge makes clear he means that the way the risk of meth was played down by the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor could later happen to asbestos. But for homeowners who lost thousands of needless dollars to less-than-qualified testers and remediators, those words may well have a more ominous ring.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Forensic and Industrial Science used field compost testing, when in fact it uses laboratory composting.

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