Newsroom Special Inquiry
Foxes in charge of the meth house
We've all heard about the flawed science behind meth testing of state houses – and that the Government will pay compensation to evicted tenants.
But who were the businesses running the flawed testing regimes? In the first of a two-part inquiry, Branko Marcetic takes a detailed look at the people behind these companies – and what they're doing now.
In 2011, Kim Gouk got a shock when she was told by the police her house had been used to cook methamphetamine. Gouk had been renting her three-bedroom, timber bungalow to a man working in a nearby mine. He had been laid off for some months when Gouk got a phone call informing her what the police had found.
Within days, the Waikato District Council listed the house as contaminated on the LIM report, barring it from being further rented out. The insurance company Gouk had been a customer with for nine years regretfully informed her she wasn’t covered for contamination. Gouk never heard back from the police about what happened to the tenant, leaving her to foot the bill on her own.
And it was quite a bill. Gouk first hired Auckland-based meth-testing company Forensic and Industrial Science Limited to test her property, costing several thousand dollars. Virtually every surface tested well above the 0.5 μg/100cm2 level then considered “contaminated” by Standards NZ.
What happened next is disputed. Gouk originally told Newsroom that Forensic recommended a local company to do the cleaning. Forensic disputes this. After repeatedly failing to respond to questions about this incident and other matters originally sent more than a month earlier, a spokesperson for Forensic told Newsroom in a statement emailed a day after this piece went up that the company "do not make recommendations as such", but "might mention the existence of cleaning companies near a client’s site". The spokesperson also forwarded a document he says was sent to Gouk along with their initial testing report, which states that "we cannot recommend a particular company". He went on to say that "even if our company recommended the cleaning company, their allegedly poor standard of work is wholly beyond our control."
“It was totally gutted,” she says.
Worse, when Forensic and Industrial Science re-tested surfaces, most still came back with residues higher than 0.5 μg/100cm2, necessitating more cleaning. As Gouk threw money at lawyers to take the cleaners to court, she sunk more money into another cleaning company to do the job properly.
Years later, a construction company would tell her the repairs would cost just under $100,000, to fix a house she now describes as a “shell” consisting of outside walls, windows and some doors. Between the lost rent and the legal, testing and cleaning fees, Gouk estimates she lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the loss of her job in a few years later makes it all but impossible to restore her house.
“It has been financially devastating,” she says.
Gouk has bitter feelings toward Forensic and Industrial Science and the cleaning company they recommended, calling them “crooks”. But her predicament was also the result of what has now been exposed as a flawed government standard — one that, ironically, was shaped by the very company Gouk initially called for help.
Gouk’s is just one of many similar stories: tenants evicted from properties, landlords financially devastated, property owners virtually stripped of their hard-earned homes, all due to a government-set standard influenced by the very industry set to profit from it. And yet stories like Gouk’s remain relevant, not just as we work toward a full accounting of how we came to what’s now described as a “panic,” but as the industry that profited from it insists it did nothing wrong — and looks to make a comeback.
The Gluckman report
Several months on, most people probably don’t realise what the Gluckman report actually said.
Because meth manufacture in New Zealand largely no longer involves hazardous chemicals that come with health risks, the Prime MInister’s Chief Science Adviser Sir Peter Gluckman and his researchers set out to determine whether or not meth itself — today the primary contaminant from “cooking” and smoking it — does, particularly at the low levels set by Standards NZ. They concluded it doesn’t.
“Where it went off the rails was that most meth-testing was being done in ordinary residential houses,” says Nick Kim of Massey University’s school of health sciences, who peer-reviewed the Ministry of Health’s 2010 guidelines on remediating meth labs. “And rather than testing for 10 possible contaminants of a meth lab, they were just testing one thing: the methamphetamine itself.”
Needless to say, the meth-testing industry disagrees with the report’s conclusions, and is pushing back.
Simon Fleming is the chairman of the Methamphetamine Testing Industry Association of New Zealand (MTIANZ), set up last year to add a sense of professionalism to an industry often derided as full of “cowboys”. The MTIANZ has a code of conduct and a disciplinary process, says Fleming, to deal with customer complaints.
Since the release of the Gluckman report, which Fleming calls “an opinion piece”, the MTIANZ has embarked on a lobbying campaign to push back against its conclusions.
"Rather than testing for 10 possible contaminants of a meth lab, they were just testing one thing: the methamphetamine itself.”
“A lot of the members of the board are lobbying as much as they possibly can with all the relevant ministries and ministers, and with both the Government and the Opposition party,” says Ann-Louise Anderson, a member of the MTIANZ board.
Industry members like Fleming argue the Gluckman report should be peer-reviewed. To that end, he says, the MTIANZ has submitted a “very credible research proposal” to various government officials, including the CEO of Housing NZ and Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford, offering to conduct a study on possible health effects from living in meth-contaminated homes. As part of the proposal, put together by Dr Jackie Wright of Flinders University’s College of Science and Engineering, the MTIANZ would provide accredited companies to do sampling and a medical professional to test for health impacts.
The Labour-led Government has been cool to both the proposal and other outreach efforts, says Fleming. He says he’s also met with Simon O’Connor, National’s associate spokesperson for social housing, and Brett Hudson, who chairs the Governance and Administration select committee, which oversees state services and local government, among other things.
“I meet with a large number of people in the community in relation to my associate housing role,” says O’Connor. “Consequently, I have met with Mr Fleming the once to discuss at a high level his organisation’s thoughts on meth testing – notably, what is actually involved and MTIANZ’s thoughts around various testing levels.” Hudson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“They've been accommodating and I've had a couple of good meetings,” says Fleming. “At this stage I'd be reluctant to say what's happening with that.”
At the same time, in July, the MTIANZ issued a press release countering the conclusions of the report. The website of Meth Xpert, Fleming’s testing company, charges that “this is [sic] document has simply ignored international research available”. Other industry members have appeared in the media since its release criticising it.
They believe the industry remains salvageable. While industry members contacted for this article all say business fell, in some cases sharply, almost overnight following the release of the Gluckman report and subsequent media coverage, some claim things are on the uptick.
“It started to pick up again,” says David Spalter, director of Auckland-based Residue Testing NZ, who says his type of testing is more detailed than others in the industry. “But I hear the basic screening stuff has dropped off.”
“It certainly dropped off within the initial couple of weeks,” says Fleming. “But we’re back to 90-95 percent of business as usual.”
Members of the industry believe the Gluckman report was politically motivated. They don’t think there’s any difference in health risk between a property that saw simply meth use and one that saw meth manufacture, one of the report’s core arguments. It was the product of selective evidence, they charge, which ignores a robust consensus among overseas researchers.
Yet the industry has an uphill climb. For one, there’s the fact that the low level the meth standard is set to is an infinitesimal fraction of the amount of methamphetamine consumed by children and adults in therapeutic drugs for conditions like ADHD. Children, for instance, are typically prescribed up to two 5 milligram tablets per day in the US — or 10,000 μg. Dr Leo Schep, toxicologist with the National Poisons Centre at the University of Otago, has said people living in houses where meth was smoked “have minimal risks of toxicity”, akin to living somewhere with a history of cigarette or marijuana use.
There’s also the fact there are no studies showing a link between health problems and third-hand meth exposure, only anecdotal cases. Anne Bardsley, co-author of the Gluckman report, recalls her attempt to track down such reports, which saw her go on what she calls a “curious loop”: a council health officer pointed her to the Auckland Regional Public Health Service, which referred her to Miles Stratford, a member of the industry, who in turn passed her on to Jackie Wright, the Australian academic behind MTIANZ’s research proposal.
“It was a complete dead end,” she says.
Conflicts of interest
At the same time, government policies around meth-testing were themselves partly shaped by the industry that stood to profit from them, two companies in particular. One was Forensic and Industrial Science Limited, the company behind Kim Gouk’s ordeal. The other was MethSolutions, run by Miles Stratford.
Stratford and Forensic’s inspector and general auditor were both part of the 21-member P8510 Committee that set the 2016 meth contamination standard, even though, as the head of meth-testing businesses, they stood to potentially profit from a lower standard.
The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) recently released report appears to exonerate the standards process, concluding that it largely “complied with the requirements of the Standards and Accreditation Act 2015”. It states that “no one member or organisation with which a member was associated dominated discussions on the content of the standard”, and that “at least five of the members of the SDC had no pecuniary interest in the content of the standard (because they were central or local government representatives).” In an interview with Newsroom, Stratford pointed to the report’s release last week as vindication.
Yet 10 of the committee’s 21 members were from either testing or cleaning companies, or labs.
“I don’t know if you’d call it a balanced committee,” says Spalter. “Someone should’ve put their hand up earlier on.”
“We raised issues at the time,” says NZ Drug Foundation Executive Director Ross Bell. “We used the phrase, ‘Fox in charge of the henhouse'.”
“My impression of the committee is the people were under immense pressure to get things out the door by a deadline,” says Kim. “They followed their own legislation, but they seemed to ignore some well-worded submissions.” Kim says the summary of submissions was never published, and the views of the Drug Foundation and his own — that they were “completely on the wrong track” — didn’t appear to be taken into account.
The MBIE report’s conclusions were also more narrow than seems obvious at first glance. The report notes that the legislation suggests who should sit on the committee: “For example, representatives from industry bodies, consumer groups NGOs and state sector agencies, experts from the relevant sector, academics and other suitable persons,” a more balanced line-up than the one ultimately chosen. Yet the report also notes that “these provisions are illustrative and are not mandatory”. In other words, the committee appeared to comply with the letter of the legislation, if not its spirit.
We raised issues at the time. We used the phrase, ‘Fox in charge of the henhouse'.
- NZ Drug Foundation Executive Director Ross Bell
The industry has shaped the standards process before. According to a 2016 report by Russell Brown, an Official Information Act request revealed Forensic’s director, Nicholas Garth Powell, had earlier pushed for the much lower 0.5 μg/100cm2 level Standards NZ had initially adopted, arguing meth was “a proxy for a range of potentially problematic contaminants generated as congeners or side-products” — in essence, treating evidence of meth use as automatic evidence of a meth lab.
Stratford and Powell were also members of the Auckland Regional Methamphetamine Working Group (ARWMG), a multi-sector working group initiated by former Auckland mayor Len Brown aimed at “influencing legislation, and national, regional and local action to ensure effective outcomes for the Auckland Region.”
“There was effectively a hui [in 2011] pulled together by Len Brown, with a bunch of people invited,” says Stratford. “The conversation was then around ‘Who is concerned around meth in the community? Who would like to be involved in a working group that looks at the issues that are associated with meth use etc.’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m happy to commit time and my perspective on that.’”
Among its more than 20-person membership were representatives of various local and national government agencies, Massey University, the police, drug treatment agencies, the real estate industry and, of course, the meth-testing industry itself. Powell is currently its deputy chair.
According to information released under a LGOIMA request, MethSolutions and Forensic and Industrial Science Ltd. were two of four companies paid a total of $67,850.97 by Auckland Council for meth-testing on council-owned properties between 2011 and 2018. Stratford’s MethSolutions was paid $18,361.59, while Powell’s company received $13,287.38.
“He should never have been on there,” Bell says of Stratford, who he accuses of “scaremongering” on the issue.
“It was us that really initiated the initial standard,” says Yvonne Powley, chair of the AMRWG. “We worked with local government to set that up.”
In 2016, while Stratford and Powell sat on the AMRWG, it presented as one of its “key achievements” the creation and dissemination of “a resource for methamphetamine-contaminated housing”, which was put on the Web and spread around through stakeholder groups like the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Salvation Army. The resource provided a list of eight companies and their phone numbers to contact for meth testing. Both Stratford and Powell’s companies were on that list.
Two years before that, the AMRWG produced a “set of health and safety guidelines for organisations, such as Auckland Council, whose staff may visit a methamphetamine (meth) contaminated property.” The AMRWG planned to send these guidelines to WorkSafe and other organisations, to serve as “a point of reference for Auckland Council environmental health staff inspecting meth-contaminated properties,” helping them identify which properties had or were being used as meth labs. That year, Auckland Council introduced what were called “tough new proposals” for cleaning up allegedly meth-contaminated homes, and would go on to threaten homeowners with prosecution.
Who are Powell and Stratford? According to Powell’s page on the website of the Independent Forensic Practitioners Institute, a forensics industry body that he’s the president of, Powell is a professional member of the Royal Society of New Zealand who has a PhD in geology, is licensed to operate x-ray equipment, and has a Post-Graduate Diploma in forensic science.
Despite Powell’s science background, the Forensic and Industrial Science Ltd. website nonetheless contains questionable information, telling visitors that meth contamination “is generated from its use” and that it “can pose a risk to inhabitants’ health”.
Meanwhile, according to his LinkedIn page, Stratford lacks even this background in forensics or chemistry, instead boasting a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Maritime Business. Prior to starting his meth-testing business, Stratford worked as a professional coach for business executives, a business consultant, the general manager of two companies promoting sustainable infrastructure projects, an account manager for a risk management firm, and an underwriter for a marine liability firm.
Over the past six years, Stratford has acted as something like the de facto face of the meth-testing industry, frequently quoted in media reports making alarming claims about the extent and danger of meth contamination in New Zealand.
In 2012, Stratford told the Herald that more than 20,000 properties around the country could be meth-contaminated, and called for “a purchase pack to be put together by the seller to prove a property is not contaminated by dangerous chemicals used in the making of drugs.” A Herald report from the same year saw him cite “estimates” that two million houses in the US had been affected by meth. (While it’s not clear what that estimate was based on, an American meth tester gave a similar estimate only two months earlier). While noting that Stratford stood to profit from quoting such statistics, the article also promoted his MethMinder device, designed to detect meth manufacture in homes.
For years Stratford asserted that around 40 percent of homes nationally were contaminated, adding that “we’re just scratching the surface”. He warned of the unique dangers faced by different regions. He told the Timaru Herald in 2015 that while South Canterbury had a meth-contamination problem, he was concerned about the “very low levels of awareness” and “very little self-protection” among the region’s home owners. In Western Bay, he claimed half of the 182 homes he had tested were contaminated, adding that anyone living in a home where meth was cooked or even used had a higher risk of cancer, heart disease and more.
“It’s absolutely certain methamphetamine is not a carcinogen,” says Bardsley.
In 2014, Stratford charged — in an article decrying the lack of accreditation and training for meth lab cleaners — that while nearly a dozen Wellington homes had been found contaminated with meth, the real number was higher because “it's the ones you don't know about that are the problem”. The year after that, he claimed that around half the HNZ homes he tested were contaminated with meth, and told the Northern Advocate that “across the housing stock in New Zealand as a whole, it will be between one in 10 and one in 20 houses that have meth residues in them”.
Stratford was seemingly as ubiquitous outside of the news. Ben Birks Ang, the national youth services adviser for the New Zealand Drug Foundation and Odyssey House, remembers seeing Stratford, along with other members of the meth-testing industry, at a workshop on meth harm reduction held by the ARMWG.
“He’s the guy who developed the industry, in my opinion. He saw a market for it, he went to the real estate companies and property management conferences. He’s very slick.”
“For the context of that particular hui, I could understand why there was a range of people looking at different ways to reduce harm,” he says. “I did think afterwards, if there were people who have vested interests for their business, whether that would be taken into account as the group was moving forward recommendations.”
David Faulkner, director of property management consultancy Real-iQ, was made a “MethSolutions Certified Sampler” by Stratford around eight years ago, after seeing him deliver a presentation at a property event in Nelson. He says he and others in the real estate industry were “sucked in”.
“He’s the guy who developed the industry, in my opinion,” says Faulkner. “He saw a market for it, he went to the real estate companies and property management conferences. He’s very slick.”
Faulkner says Stratford would regularly train property managers to also act as meth-testers. One such company is Bolitho Property Management in Nelson, which boasts of having “formed a working partnership with Miles Stratford of MethSolutions” and affirms that all of its property managers are “certified methamphetamine samplers”. In one 2017 Tenancy Tribunal decision, a Bolitho tenant had to pay more than $900 for testing and clean-up costs, after Stratford’s company tested the property, finding meth levels had risen from 0.25 μg/100cm2 to 0.87 μg/100cm2.
Faulkner believes this dual role is a conflict of interest. And he’s not the only one: last year at a Real-iQ seminar, both Real Estate Institute of New Zealand Chief Legal Officer Lisa Gerrard and lawyer Richard Hern advised a room full of property managers not to double as testers. Stratford was the only one on the panel who disagreed.
“Who knows how much money he’s made from this,” says Faulkner.
Stratford says his goal has never been to “make as much money as possible”, but to reduce harm for people. He asks how, if a property manager can’t be trusted to do a meth-test on a property, they can be trusted to inspect it.
“A conflict of interest is inherent in many things,” he says. “But it’s how things are managed.”
Outside scientific consensus?
Meanwhile, Anne Bardsley accuses Stratford of trying to “discredit” the Gluckman report since its release.
Labelling Gluckman “reckless,” Stratford charged in May that the report “panders to the economic and social policy direction” of the new Labour government. This is the same argument he’s reportedly sent to his mailing list, decrying the “dubiousness” of a report that “matches exactly with the long-standing socio-political agenda” of Phil Twyford, whom he accuses of signalling to tenants “that they have carte blanche to use meth in HNZ properties”.
In multiple interviews, Stratford has accused Gluckman of reaching conclusions that fall outside a global scientific consensus, and implied that Gluckman had been misled by his researchers (Bardsley among them) who “cherry-picked” evidence. Since the close of July, Stratford has made a flurry of OIA requests regarding the report, including asking for emails between the office of the PMCSA and Russell Brown, one of the journalists who has been most critical of the industry. Stratford has also released his own rebuttal to Gluckman’s report, written in an almost identical format and font as the original.
Stratford has branched out to Australia. At an international conference held in Melbourne last year Stratford told attendees that “any property, any suburb, any town is at risk of meth contamination”, and that “contamination can arise from the use or manufacture of meth” (emphasis added). His claims were then re-broadcast by the director of Scientell, a science PR firm that managed media communications for the conference.
Stratford made similar warnings that were similarly uncritically broadcast by the Australian and New Zealand Institute of Insurance and Finance. At least one Australian company are already “MethSolutions-certified samplers”.
“He’s done New Zealand, and he’s said, ‘I can take this around the world,’” says Faulkner. “He’s seen that the game may be up.”
Stratford denies that his company is looking increasingly at Australia, though he says that “we’ve had some conversations with people in Australia”.
AMRWG Chair Yvonne Powley — who got in touch with Newsroom after Stratford told her this reporter was “looking at discrediting him” — calls Stratford “very passionate”, and says he’s genuine in his concern. She says he’s contributed productively to the AMRWG, such as by putting the body in touch with individuals who have contacted him.
“We don’t always agree with what Miles says,” says Powley. “But it’s quite good when you have a variety of diverse opinions.”
When asked about the questionable claims Stratford has publicly made over the years, Powley says she hasn’t followed what he’s said in the media, that he doesn’t speak on behalf of the AMRWG, and that “he’s not making those claims at our group”.
“If there are things that he's saying now in terms of his own business that may impact on us, then I would be concerned about that,” she says.
Asked about the potential conflict of interest from industry members sitting on the AMRWG and even serving as its deputy chair, Powley says they “come with quite a contribution and knowledge of the sector”, and notes they’re just one of many members. “They’re not going to influence a lot of what’s said.”
An earlier version of this story erroneously said Miles Stratford passed Anne Bardsley on to an American testing company during her attempt to track down information. It also said the P8510 Committee had 18 members instead of 21. Eighteen was the number when the Committee was initially formed, there were 21 when it was finalised.
An earlier version also said Forensic and Industrial Science recommended the local company that cleaned Kim Gouk's home. This story has been updated with comments from a Forensic and Industrial Science spokesperson disputing this, and stating that the company has a policy of not giving out recommendations which it sent to Ms. Gouk.