The Men and Women Who Clean Up Meth Labs
The Fix reports from Indiana, where the US meth epidemic rages on. Those who work to make hazardous homes safe have human pain to deal with, as well as chemical contamination.
Every time Sherry Hatfield hangs up her work phone there’s a chance she’ll be crying. The person on the other line is even more likely to be in tears. “I have that happen every day,” she says. “The women tend to cry. The guys tend to get irate.”
Hatfield works for Crisis Cleaning, a meth lab decontamination company in rural Bloomfield, Indiana, and when people call her it’s typically because they've found something they wish they hadn't. Sometimes it’s because the police found it first.
Though her job title is office manager, Hatfield is also a de facto grief counselor, listening intently as people recount the events that led them to make the call. The most heart-wrenching stories stick with her. She recalls the mother of two who lost her children to the state after their father was busted cooking meth in the family home. She shakes her head remembering the elderly woman living in a hospice, who couldn't afford to decontaminate after her adult son was caught cooking meth: In a fit of rage, the woman had her entire home bulldozed. Neither has Hatfield forgotten the West Virginia resident whose Indiana property was taken over by meth-producing squatters.
The people who call Hatfield are the often-overlooked victims of America’s meth epidemic. They don’t take mug shots or tell stories of hitting rock bottom; they’re the ones who clean up after those who do. "The dealers don't call us,” Hatfield says. “It's always the innocent people."
Donetta Held makes a living helping those people. Her company, Crisis Cleaning, began as an offshoot of a longstanding family fire and flood recovery business. Crisis Cleaning started with death and crime scene cleanup in 2001, the year after CSI premiered on CBS. In 2007—the year after methamphetamine use in the United States hit its peak—Held started fielding questions from sheriffs about cleaning meth labs. She knew little about it, but was willing to learn. Forty hours of OSHA HAZWOPER classes taught her how to handle hazardous chemicals; eight hours of detailed training from a meth cleanup company in Iowa taught her the specifics. Held’s timing couldn't have been better: In March 2007, Indiana passed a law requiring homes with a toxic level of meth contamination to undergo professional cleaning.
Workers wade through the detritus of the former inhabitants—"lots of pipes, needles and porn magazines"—and wipe portions of the walls, ceiling and floor with alcohol-soaked swabs.
In the six years since, business has flourished for Held, who is paid between $2,000 and $5,000 per cleanup—and for hundreds of other companies across the country that perform similar services. Each year the DEA records more than 10,000 meth lab incidents and state laws require professional cleaning in most cases. Meth decontamination companies also work in the homes and hotel rooms in which nothing is seized but traces of meth are found. Indiana is a hotbed of meth activity, ranking third in the country for recorded meth incidents, with a record 1,726 lab busts last year.
"The property owner will call and we come out to test it," Held says. Workers enter the riskiest sites looking like a cross between a Smurf and Neil Armstrong. Their entire bodies are covered in papery blue suits and respirators to protect their lungs—a necessary step when dealing with chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia, which can cause watery eyes and choking if inhaled, and sodium hydroxide, which causes severe burns if it comes into contact with skin.
Held says the “shake and bake” method of meth production, which requires little more hardware than a two-liter bottle, has become particularly popular. It’s so easy that people can cook meth at home without people in other parts of the house even knowing. That’s increased the need for businesses like Crisis Cleaning, which has now expanded its reach into Ohio and South Carolina. It’s also allowed Held to sell around 10 at-home meth testing kits each week and to write a how-to book on decontamination called The Meth Solution.
"It's all on the rise for us," says Held, whose company keeps an average pace of five meth lab cleanups per month. "The majority of our work is rural, but we've done a lot in cities too. We've done high dollar homes to lower class hotels. And we can hardly keep enough test kits made." Her typical job begins with a police bust, often in a rental property. The police alert the health department, which provides the property owner with a list of state-approved inspectors. In Indiana, the list comprises 30 companies. "The property owner will call and we come out to test it," Held says.
Once inside, workers will typically wade through the detritus cast aside by the former inhabitants—"lots of pipes, needles and porn magazines," Held says—and wipe portions of the walls, ceiling and floor with alcohol-soaked swabs. They’re looking for meth residue left behind from the cooking process, which produces five to seven pounds of waste for every pound of meth.
The samples they take are shipped to a lab for analysis, and if more than .50 micrograms of meth residue per 100 square centimeters are revealed, Indiana law requires remediation. "State law says you can decontaminate, gut it to the studs or demolish," Held says. The threshold for at which such measures are required varies: States such as Montana and Kentucky require a cleanup at .1 micrograms, with Oregon going even lower at .05 micrograms. California doesn't require a cleanup until 1.5 micrograms.
"When you're talking about chronic exposure to very low levels of pollutants it's hard to get good science. That's why you see the variation [in laws],” says Scott Frosch, Indiana’s Program Coordinator for Drug Lab Cleanup. Even as the research evolves, no one knows what’s safe in terms of the lower levels of meth residue exposure. “We could argue about that until the cows come home,” Frosch says.
“Some of the properties are so grossly contaminated though, at 10 or 100 times the cleanup level. Those are the ones we think are really a problem that need help,” he says. Those properties cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, skin and eye irritation, among other health problems. And they’re the properties that Held’s employees attack with their full arsenal of vacuums, sprayers and their biggest weapon in the fight against meth residue: the commercial decontaminate Chem Decon.
"It's almost like fogging," Held says of the decon process, and it's an enormous upgrade over what she did five years ago. "When we first started it was very extensive. We had to hand clean and put on a heavy foam," she says. Now her employees spray on the decontaminator, let it dry and spray again. "Depending how bad it is, we may have to spray five or six times."
That process saves walls, ceilings, floors and cabinets, but it can’t salvage furniture or carpet. Porous items have too many cracks and crevices that the meth residue can burrow into, so they’re usually trashed, especially if they’re in a rental property. “The landlord usually doesn’t even care and just throws everything away," Held says.
While many of Crisis Cleaning's jobs involve cleaning up houses that are clearly crime scenes, they also work in homes that pass the eye test but fail the chemical one. Whether they were used as meth labs or just a place to smoke, these homes typically come to Crisis Cleaning’s attention after suffering has given way to realization.
"Sometimes people just aren't aware of what their rashes or respiratory issues are from," Held says. She’s recalls case in which a young boy’s asthma amplified when he was at his mother’s house and went away at his dad’s. After hearing from neighbors that the house may have once served as a meth lab, the mother had it tested and got the bad news.
That story is a common one, especially in the 22 states that do not require property owners to disclose that a house was previously a meth lab. Stories abound of people buying new homes only to find out later that they’re contaminated. Held advises anyone who buys from foreclosure or for an unusually low price to be exercise caution. She suggests testing a house before purchase and making the cleanup, should it be contaminated, a condition of sale. But once that has happened, people should feel safe moving in. “It wouldn’t bother me to buy a home that was a former meth lab,” she says. “Sometimes you get a good deal that way.”
Adam K. Raymond is a regular Fix contributor who lives in Indiana.