How to avoid buying a meth house (© Tom Merton/Getty Images)

© Tom Merton/Getty Images

As the highly addictive drug methamphetamine grows in popularity, so does the chance you could end up buying a "meth house" when you go shopping for real estate.

Making or even smoking meth leaves behind a stew of chemicals that saturates walls, ceilings, floors and carpets with meth as well as mercury, lead, iodine, lithium and poisonous solvents. For each pound of drug, meth "cookers" dump, flush or leave behind 5 to 6 pounds of poisonous waste.

Exposure to even small amounts of these poisons can damage humans’ nervous systems, liver and blood production mechanisms. Small children suffer most. Exposure can trigger birth defects and developmental problems in babies in the womb. (Learn about drug-endangered children at the Office of National Drug Control Policy.)

Meth labs are found in houses, commercial buildings, cabins, mobile homes, RVs, caves, abandoned mines and federal and state forests and parks. The stuff is so easy to make and the ingredients are so cheap and common that some users just make their own at home in two-liter pop bottles or a picnic cooler. (Bing: How prevalent is meth use in the U.S.?)

If you accidentally buy a meth house, your health isn’t the only thing at stake. You could get stuck with tens of thousands of dollars in costs for testing and hazardous-materials cleanup.

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That is what happened to Dawn Turner’s son and his young family when they unwittingly bought a meth house in a rural area in Tennessee in 2004. It wasn’t until 2006, when they decided to sell the house, that they learned from neighbors that the previous owner of their home was in prison for making and using meth there. The cost of testing, decontaminating and re-testing the house: $16,000. The experience devastated the young couple, emotionally and financially, says Turner, who began a Web site, MethLabHomes.com, that’s a repository of news and resources to help keep others from making the same mistake.

Many homeowners she talks with are wiped out financially by these contaminated homes, Turner says.

Sorting fact from fiction
A home contaminated by meth production has few visible signs. Buyers need help identifying the risks, yet bad information abounds. Here are some common myths about meth houses:

Myth No. 1: You can use hair spray or spray starch to find meth residue.
Fact:
Hair spray? Not a chance. There is a bit of truth that starch, sprayed on a contaminated surface, will turn purple-red. Starch turns color in the presence of iodine, used in cooking meth. “It’s a pretty common high-school science project,” says Caoimhín P. Connell, an industrial hygienist who’s an expert in detecting methamphetamine with Forensic Applications Consulting Technology in Bailey, Colo. The spray-starch trick caught on after it was featured in an episode of “CSI.” It can work, but it’s not reliable or sensitive, so if you don’t see purple, you can’t conclude that a house is clean.

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Myth No. 2: You can tell by the smell.
Fact:
An old, out-of-use method of meth manufacture does produce a nasty odor that’s reminiscent of cat urine. Even current methods – at certain stages – produce various odors. But none of these is a reliable tip-off. In fact, most meth-contaminated homes have no odor or visual clues.

Mike Parker, a landlord in Trinidad, Colo., spent two years and $40,000 to test and clean up one of his 21 apartments after police arrested a tenant with meth supplies four years ago. The apartment was sealed for two years while Parker tried to borrow enough money for the job. His insurance policy didn’t cover it. “They literally go in and tear everything out,” Parker says of the cleanup by a hazardous-waste company. “I had to recarpet, put in a new toilet, new appliances, new fixtures. They took out the stove, refrigerator, everything.”

And yet, Parker had been in the apartment the day of the bust and he smelled nothing -- no tell-tale odors whatsoever. Despite all his trouble, he says he feels somewhat lucky: Had all 21 apartments shared a heating system, the entire building would have been affected.

Parker vouches for the fact that meth labs are easy to conceal. Usually they go undiscovered until a landlord finds a mess when tenants depart or a neighbor phones police to report someone’s weird behavior. “We presume that for every meth lab law enforcement discovers, there are 15 that have not been discovered,” Connell says.

Myth No. 3: No problem, they were only smoking it.
Fact:
Experts differ on how much methamphetamine smoking it takes to contaminate a home to a level that’s dangerous to inhabitants. Connell says one smoke could leave a home uninhabitable. But researcher John Martyny, an associate professor at University of Colorado and industrial hygienist at National Jewish Health Center in Denver, disagrees: “One smoke, you probably would be able to detect it but it’s going to be pretty low,” says Martyny. While detectable, the residue wouldn’t likely violate any state’s regulations, he says.

However, repeated smoking will. Manufacturing methamphetamine creates more contamination than smoking, but repeated smoking will push levels in a home over state limits to levels that make a structure dangerous to inhabitants. In a 2008 study, “Methamphetamine contamination on environmental surfaces caused by simulated smoking of methamphetamine” (published in the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety), Martyny’s laboratory simulated “six or seven smokes, maybe a little bit more, and it (the result) was well over the limits.” (Editor’s note: This story as originally published included only Connell’s expert opinion that one smoke could leave a home uninhabitable.)

Myth No. 4: You’re safe in high-end neighborhoods.
Fact:
Plenty of labs have been discovered in expensive homes in “nice” neighborhoods. “We have processed meth labs in the homes of two different dentists, a public accountant and an international banker who had a legitimate income of seven figures,” Connell says. He recently tested and found meth in a “beautiful,” 4,500-square-foot, million-dollar house in downtown Denver.

In 2009, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported clandestine meth labs in 46 states. (Click your state on this DEA map.) Certain areas become hot spots. Lately, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri are a center for labs. One reason: Midwest farmers use tons of anhydrous-ammonia fertilizer on crops. It’s a “precursor” (ingredient) for meth and is stored in big tanks in and around farms. Thieves help themselves and a manufacturing industry grows up around the supply.