Utah's meth epidemic appears to have unleashed a wave of entrepreneurs or opportunists who can make or save thousands on the cleanup of homes where meth has been made or used.
The issue seems simple: Methamphetamine residue is bad, although health consequences are ambiguous, and people shouldn't live where remnants of the drug are present.
But a variety of parties have an interest in this issue and millions of dollars are at stake.
Homeowners and renters obviously care about their safety. Local health departments must close down housing that is contaminated. Landlords have to pay thousands of dollars to clean it all up.
And importantly, someone must test the carpet, the walls and the air ducts for meth residue.
This is where the Utah system falls flat.
Research by the Deseret Morning News shows the system for detecting houses "contaminated" by meth is flawed at best and, in the worst cases, fraudulent.
Critics say area health departments seem to have abdicated responsibility for the mess and have turned it over to a handful of private "decontamination specialists" with little hands-on training and no oversight.
"There's a cry and a need for this to be fixed," says Chris Kyler, government affairs specialist for the Utah Association of Realtors. "They're bilking people, period."
Brian Reid, an environmental-health specialist for the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, agrees there are holes in the system.
"I do realize that there is a lot of money possibly at stake," Reid said. But he's not sure how to fix the system. "It's not perfect, by any means."
Furthermore, meth tests are inconsistent some say even unreliable and the same companies doing the tests are often also doing the cleanup.
That's a conflict of interest, says Kirk Cullimore, an attorney who represents many Wasatch Front apartment owners. "If the guy doing the testing is the guy who's going to do the cleanup, of course he's going to find meth," he said.
"The intent was to protect people. The intent was not to create a cottage industry for a few guys doing meth cleanup."
Kyler said the state should prohibit meth testers from being "remediators," offering cleanup services.
Bill Rees, who oversees the contamination-specialist certification program for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said he's not aware of any fraud. He said he's confident the companies comply with requirements for sampling and cleanup.
The owner of Low Cost Cleanup and Restoration scoffs at the notion of cheating.
"It is real hard, in fact it's impossible, to get a positive reading if there was no methamphetamine there," said Kyle Adams. "You can't make methamphetamine appear where it's not."
Meth is typically inhaled from a heated glass pipe from which smoke wafts throughout the house and into the duct work. Users often dump residue from the pipe onto the carpet.
"It goes wherever air currents take it," Adams said. "Every surface absorbs this stuff at different rates. ... Unpainted Sheetrock soaks it right up."
But at $4,000 or $5,000 a pop to decontaminate an apartment, the system for testing is under increased scrutiny. And local health departments say it's impossible for them to do the tests themselves or monitor them.
Last week, Reid went to an apartment complex to monitor testing by a "decontamination specialist."
"It took four hours for six apartments," Reid said. "We have so many cases that it would take all of our time to monitor every test. We don't have the manpower to do that."The issue has been simmering in some circles for years. But the controversial closing of an apartment complex last month illustrates the muddy morass faced by property owners and renters where the cleanup of methamphetamine contamination is concerned.
Like several neighboring states, Utah has a rigid standard for meth contamination 0.1 micrograms per 100 square centimeters. That amounts to slicing a pea in 10 million pieces, and if one of those minute particles is found in an area roughly the size of a CD case, the premises would be considered contaminated.
Homes and apartments at that level require thorough cleansing.
"This is what we felt would be the most protective based on what we know," said Wayne Ball, a Utah Department of Health toxicologist who helped write the regulations.
The problem, health officials concede, is that there isn't any research currently attached to the standard. It errs on the side of caution.
"Until we know more, we're pretty much stuck with this level," Ball said.
The current regulations were established with meth labs in mind, not meth use. Smoking the drug emits fewer toxins at lower levels than cooking it. With police finding fewer meth labs, the contamination problem has shifted in a way health officials did not expect.
"Basically, those problems evolved quicker and in a different direction than we anticipated when we made the rule," Ball said. "It's clear we need to provide answers when people get a hit at low levels."
The 0.1 microgram standard is not an exposure limit that would indicate at what level someone is likely to become sick. Health officials don't know that. Rather it is a standard based on the lowest detectable level.
Cullimore, the apartment owner's lawyer, calls it unscientific and unreasonable.
"It is so low I would venture to say most of us could go into our own house and find that kind of level," he said.
Cullimore likens it to the mold scare of a few years ago, which he said dried up and went away after science showed the health risks were blown out of proportion.
"To me that's the problem," he said. "We're creating a scare where there isn't one."
Kyler, representing Realtors, said meth tests are unreliable because the margin of error is too broad. Utah needs to re-examine the contamination standard and set it at an appropriate level, he said."There's an awful lot of houses being tagged as dirty, when in fact they're not," he said.
Reid and his colleagues acknowledge troubling factors in the meth testing process.
"If one decontamination specialist tests in one area, and another takes the same test six inches away, results might be totally different," Reid said.
And it's true the health effects of exposure to meth residue are unknown, said Craig Weinheimer, environmental health scientist for the Salt Lake Valley Health Department.
"We've heard many, many things. It's really tough for us to deal with. We're not trained medically."
Health officials, he said, are anxiously awaiting the outcome of studies on the subject.
Residents in meth-contaminated homes have reported persistent headaches, coughs, rashes and respiratory problems. But health officials can't say whether there is a causal link.
The subject has also generated interagency bickering.
"The DEQ drew up certification standards. It should be their responsibility to monitor them," Reid said. "There are certainly a lot of things that can go wrong."
The state Department of Environmental Quality launched the certification program about a year ago. It requires decontamination specialists to pay a $225 fee and pass a test. Certification is good for two years.
The state's testing guidelines do not specify where in a home or apartment samples should be collected.
Samples are typically taken by swiping a cloth saturated in isopropyl alcohol or methanol on a wall, counter or air duct. The outcome could change depending on how hard the tester presses, whether the surface was recently cleaned, what type of alcohol is used or the location of the swipe.
"The sampling process is such that if you sample at one place, move over a foot and sample again, you could have a different result," Weinheimer said. "There are a lot of variables that influence that."
Meth tests are becoming common practice for people in the market for a new place to live.
"It's a regular thing nowadays," said Mike Rowzee, owner of Certified Decontamination in West Jordan. "A lot of people who are buying or renting homes or apartments are doing tests themselves or having them done."
"It isn't just the poor side of town that has methamphetamine abuse," Rowzee said. "We're finding it everywhere."
Property investors, real estate agents, home inspectors, police and other state agencies also are requesting meth tests.
But critics of the testing and cleanup business argue that the state's standard for meth contamination is so low that any house, restaurant or public building would test positive."We're creating a scare where there isn't one," said Cullimore. "There's just something wacko about the whole thing," the attorney said.
And new legislation that seeks to fix part of the problem may serve only to muddy the issue further.
Local health department rules regarding meth contamination came as a result of the state's 2004 Illegal Drug Operations Site Reporting and Decontamination Act. It was written with meth labs in mind.
It directed the Utah departments of health and environmental quality to write sampling and decontamination guidelines and certification standards, respectively. It requires police to report drug labs to the health department. It also calls for certified decontamination specialists to submit work plans to local health departments before cleaning contaminated property.
"The rule was intended for production facilities," Ball said.
A bill under consideration this year would require a person other than the police officer who files a complaint of drug-contaminated property to include a written chemical analysis of the site by a certified specialist.
Basically, that means if a resident suspects a neighbor of running a meth house, the resident would have to get the neighbor's house tested before making the complaint.
"It's ridiculous," Kyler said.
The bill was amended that way to take the onus for verifying contamination off local health departments, who say they don't have the staff to run down complaints.It again is left in the hands of companies who may do both testing and cleanup.