(The Associated Press- Memphis) A tall man and a slender woman wiggled into their white hazardous materials suits, putting on protective masks and gloves before venturing into the dark, two-story home where police say a methamphetamine lab recently exploded.

Gary Siebenschuh and a helper used a yellow photo ionization detector to measure for meth residue, maneuvering around debris and a hole in the roof caused by the Nov. 6 fire that injured a young child. They took wipe samples of walls, ducts, window sills and other parts of the home, later sending them to a lab to be analyzed.

“The process is extremely cumbersome, but I think it’s necessary,” said Dick Cochran, owner of the Memphis home where a renter was charged with making meth and causing the explosion and fire. He hired Siebenschuh to inspect the property.

“You don’t know how bad a house can be contaminated,” Cochran said.

Tens of thousands of houses — including many in Tennessee, which state officials say has the nation’s worst meth addiction problem — have been used as meth labs in the past decade, and a cottage industry is developing around cleaning them up.

Many Americans are more aware of the production of the highly addictive drug thanks to AMC’s hit show “Breaking Bad,” about a high school chemistry teacher who turned into a meth cooker and dealer. In real life, cleanup contractors are the ones who deal with a property when a batch explodes or police raid an operation and shut it down.

However, there is little oversight of the growing industry in most states, opening the door for potential malfeasance. And homeowners are often reluctant to pay thousands of dollars to make a property safe, so many houses don’t get cleaned for years, exposing residents and sometimes neighbors to harmful chemicals.

Cochran expects to spend thousands to make the house rentable once again, with much of the cost covered by his insurance company. However, that is not the norm; many insurance policies do not cover meth cleanup.

To make a meth home safe, a certified contractor must remove and replace all contaminated materials, from walls to carpet to air conditioning vents. Next, a certified “industrial hygienist” tests the home to gauge whether it can be lived in or needs more cleaning.

Exposure poses risks

Hygienists and contractors find homes in different states of disrepair. Homes with no fires or explosions are easier to clean, but there is often a pungent odor, as well as contaminated cooktops, carpets and walls; leaky roofs; and dirty furniture. In Cochran’s home, Siebenschuh had to maneuver around debris and a burned-out shell of a second floor and attic.

“You do testing in the front end, so we can find out how much meth is there,” said Siebenschuh, whose company, G7 Environmental Services, also does testing for asbestos, mold and other contaminants. “Then the homeowner hires a contractor, and then he cleans it up.”

Despite laws requiring landlords to disclose if meth had been made on a property, experts say such disclosures often don’t happen and many people live in contaminated homes nationwide.

Exposure to meth residue can cause respiratory problems, and health officials say meth homes pose a threat to public safety. For example, squatters may enter abandoned homes, and children play around them.

Over the past decade, tens of thousands of homes have been used to cook meth, federal data show. About 25 states have laws related to meth cleanup. Some, including Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, place meth homes on quarantine lists. Some properties on Tennessee’s list date to 2006, underscoring the years it can take for some properties to be cleaned. Costs can range from $3,000 to $25,000, depending on the home’s size and the amount of contamination.

Many independent contractors, such as Don Horne, do meth cleanup as a second job to make extra money. Horne, a law enforcement officer in a small Arkansas town, also does pressure washing and cleaning of commercial kitchen exhausts.

Contractors who offer very low bids may be cutting corners.

One Tennessee hygienist faces federal fraud charges for contracting with homeowners to clean up their properties, then illegally certifying that the homes were safe to live in despite not being properly cleaned. Douglas McCasland has pleaded not guilty, and faces trial in June.

With a small staff, Tennessee’s meth remediation department acknowledges it does not have the manpower to closely oversee contractors.

Dan Hawkins, head of the state’s meth remediation office in Knoxville, says the division received federal funding to operate the website and has three full-time employees. The state is looking at training more people to oversee and evaluate cleanups.

“We are aware that contractors may run the entire scope, from very good to terrible, and we are evaluating,” he said.
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