When police in Tennessee find methamphetamine labs in a rental home, the property's owner faces a wall of fees to fix the problem.
Dawn Turner said her son bought a house in Sweetwater, Tenn., in 2004, one year before the Tennessee laws on meth quarantining took effect. After living in the house with his wife and two children, he learned from neighbors that a meth lab had been there, she said.
Three years later, while trying to sell the house, he had to have it inspected twice and cleaned professionally, eventually costing him $16,000, according to Ms. Turner.
He since has moved his family to another house and is treating his children's health problems, which may be linked to living in the meth house, she said.
METH LAB SEIZURES
Year Tennessee Georgia United States
* 1999 143 27 7,438
* 2000 249 54 9,092
* 2001 495 59 13,537
* 2002 608 127 16,212
* 2003 958 250 17,356
* 2004 1,327 261 17,170
* 2005 873 131 12,619
* 2006 401 156 7,347
* 2007 547 67 5,910
* 2008 553 78 6,783
Source: Drug Enforcement Administration
SIGNS OF A LAB
* A large amount of cold tablet containers that list ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as ingredients;
* Jars containing clear liquid with a white- or red-colored solid on the bottom;
* Jars labeled as containing iodine or dark, shiny metallic purple crystals inside jars;
* Jars labeled as containing red phosphorus or a fine dark red or purple powder;
* Coffee filters containing a white pasty substance, a dark red sludge, or small amounts of shiny white crystals;
* Bottles labeled as containing sulfuric, muriatic or hydrochloric acid;
* Bottles or jars with rubber tubing attached;
* Glass cookware or frying pans containing a powdery residue;
* An unusually large number of cans of camp fuel, paint thinner, acetone, starter fluid, lye, or drain cleaners containing sulfuric acid;
* Large amounts of lithium batteries, especially ones that have been stripped;
* Soft silver or gray metallic ribbon (in chunk form) stored in oil or kerosene;
* Propane tanks with fittings that have turned blue;
* Occupants of residence going outside to smoke;
* Strong smell of urine or unusual chemical smells like ether, ammonia or acetone.
Source: Drug Enforcement Administration
METH HEALTH EFFECTS
For children, there is an increased likelihood to develop learning disabilities, long-term respiratory and skin problems.
Eye irritation, headaches, nausea and dizziness are common problems reported when someone comes into contact with the contaminants.
Exposure to some chemicals used in making meth may cause symptoms such as throat irritation, upset stomach and confusion. Benzene, sometimes used in cooking meth, is known to cause cancer.
Sources: National Jewish Medical and Research Center, Missouri Department of Public Health
The chemicals used in meth labs are a toxic brew that can cause eye and throat irritation, breathing problems, learning disabilities and neurological problems in children, headaches, nausea and digestive problems, according to the National Jewish Medical and Research Center.
Health concerns and frustration over her son's predicament led Ms. Turner to found the Web site methlabhomes.com in 2007. She updates it with tips for property owners and renters to avoid similar problems.
"People are buying these homes that are contaminated and then being handed the bill for cleaning it up," she said.
LAWS AND CLEANUP
The 2005 Meth Free Tennessee Act gave law enforcement authorities the power to quarantine properties where they find meth labs. That quarantine is attached to the property deed, and the property cannot be occupied until a state-approved agency cleans it, according to guidelines laid out in the law, said Tommy Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force.
But too often innocent homeowners are caught in a web of debt and have few resources, he said.
It is difficult to sue those convicted of making meth, because they're often headed to jail and rarely have any money, Mr. Farmer said.
He advises people to seek court-ordered restitution for the cleaning and repair of homes contaminated by meth, but that, too, can be hard to receive.
"I don't know what the answer is; I really don't," Mr. Farmer said.
Costs for cleaning range from $2,000 to more than $30,000, according to Tennessee contractors.
Steve Brown, co-owner of Servpro of North Chattanooga and Bradley County, said renters or homeowners who learn that a meth lab was in their home should ask the property owner for a certified letter from the company that cleaned the site, which should be attached to the property deed.
Dallas Whitmill, senior engineer for Aquaterra Engineering, said some owners of mobile homes in Tennessee move the homes to Georgia rather than pay to have them cleaned, which can sometimes exceed the value of the home.
Only 81 of 303 quarantined properties in Tennessee have been cleaned, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Cleaning costs and time depend on the level of contamination, and in Tennessee the arresting officer assigns each property a tier level of one through four, with level four being the most contaminated.
Mr. Brown and Mr. Whitmill said level four designations are rare, and most contaminated properties are listed as either level two or three.
A level one site typically takes one to two days to clean and costs a few thousand dollars, Mr. Brown said. Some level three sites can take a crew up to a week to clean and cost tens of thousands of dollars, he said.
Often cleaning crews have to tear out any contaminated surfaces - carpets, wallboard, counters, and appliances. So costs continue to increase just to repair the damage, Mr. Brown said.
Those costs, Mr. Farmer said, are laid on the homeowner, while foreclosed properties shift the burden to a bank or local government.
Potential homebuyers or renters should call local law enforcement to check if a house ever has been the site of a meth lab, said Nickie Schwarzkopf, president of the Chattanooga Association of Realtors.
She advises property owners anywhere to tell potential buyers or renters if there's been a meth lab in the home.
Tennessee's laws are some of the most advanced in the nation for dealing with meth lab homes, but Mr. Farmer said there's room for improvement and ways that contaminated sites can go unnoticed.
Without police involvement, there's no paper trail, he said.
If a property owner found a meth lab after a tenant had left the home and didn't report it or have it cleaned, future residents would have no knowledge of the contamination, Mr. Farmer said.
Ms. Turner said there isn't enough law enforcement manpower to track homes, and the best solution would be a nationwide standard requiring a property be tested before it can be sold.
"The problem is that many of these homes, most of these homes, have never been reported," she said.