Invisible smoke

Meth contamination dangerous to residents

— When someone rents a new apartment or home, they're often obliged to check for damages.

A burn in the carpet here, water damage under a sink there.

But methamphetamine smoke in the walls?

A recent diagnosis at a local apartment may have hit on a problem Craig officials - and landlords and tenants - are starting to address.

CaoimhÃn Connell, senior industrial hygienist with Park County-based Forensic Applications Consulting Technologies, was in Craig last week performing a follow-up investigation at the contaminated apartment.

In addition to his fieldwork in meth lab investigations and his job as a Park County Sheriff's Office deputy, Connell was the primary author for Colorado's legislation on how authorities should assess meth contamination.

Meth contamination can be pervasive and lead to a laundry list of problems for those who come into contact with leftover toxic substances, Connell said.

There are a variety of ways to make meth, and different substances used each time determine what health effects might result from contact, Connell said.

"The idea of the preliminary assessment is to find out what compounds were used, how bad they are, where they are and, finally, what needs to be done to make the property a safe environment," Connell said.

Dangers

Among the more dangerous substances are carcinogens and neurotoxins, as well as poisons such as arsenic and lead.

Ammonia used in meth production can cause respiratory problems.

Interestingly, it's small-time users that do the most damage, Connell said.

"We now know smoking meth in a property can contaminate that property to a greater deal than making meth in that property," Connell said. "A clean cook, if they're being careful, can minimize the amount of toxic substances that get into the air. When someone is smoking meth, about 90 percent of those substances can come out of the bowl they are smoking, or breathed out later."

Substances leave a residue on walls, floors, ceilings and any property in the apartment at the time of use or manufacture, Connell added. Those substances stay for a long time and can be disturbed and "kicked into the air" long after they originally settled.

"If smoking has taken place, and someone walked in fairly recently after that, they would breathe all that right in," Connell said. "If smoking happened six months earlier, those substances can be disturbed by someone sitting down on a sofa or a baby walking across the carpet."

Responsibility

Colorado laws leave discretion to local authorities on how to handle a property once meth contamination is certified.

Under state laws, a property is deemed a "meth lab" if there is suspicion of use, Connell said. For instance, a police officer can see a pipe on the table and deem the property a meth lab.

Once contamination is certified, it is illegal for anyone not certified in conducting investigations to enter the property or take any items out of the property, including owners, tenants and landlords, Connell said.

This is for the safety of anyone who might enter the property, since a reasonable amount of contamination can be harmful, and many meth labs are booby-trapped and dangerous to walk around in, Connell said.

Closing a property falls under state civil statutes, which means the property is closed automatically, regardless of whether a criminal investigation is filed.

The responsibility to make sure no one enters the property falls on local building departments and health departments under Title 25 of the civil code and local law enforcement under public nuisance laws, Connell said.

Police can declare the area a crime scene, and building and health departments can placard the area to ensure entry is impossible.

Different counties operate with different methods, he added. Denver and Douglas County enforce the statutes aggressively, Connell said.

"In Denver, the building department goes out to a meth lab with the health department and boards up all the windows and puts security locks on all the entry points," Connell said. "There, no one is going to get in."

A landlord is not authorized to keep a tenant out of their property until he or she completes a formal eviction process, Connell said.

It is still illegal for a tenant to enter a property and remove items even if he or she is not physically restricted from doing so.

It is a landlord's legal responsibility to make sure a chemical investigation and any cleanup required to make the property safe is done, Connell said.

The law requires a "qualified" industrial hygienist for the investigation, of which there are about 15 in the state, Connell said. Landlords and property owners should be aware not all "certified" industrial hygienists meet the standards of qualification for meth lab investigations, Connell said.

In many cases, a tenant does not have the money to pay for testing and cleaning costs, and the burden falls on the landlord.

"Many landlords confiscate the property left behind to pay for the costs," Connell said.

Local takes

The case Connell came to investigate is the first of its kind in Craig, said Martin Colgan, city building inspector, and Dave Costa, city community development director.

Under the statute, the building inspector's responsibility is to post that a contaminated area is unsafe and therefore closed, and then advise the landlord on his or her responsibilities, Colgan said.

The Craig Police Department also is new in dealing with the laws about meth contamination, said Jerry DeLong, Police Department public information officer.

In the future, Police Department officials will examine the statute closely and determine what, if any, duties the department is obligated to address.

Connell recommended landlords do fairly regular tests on apartments when tenants move out.

This serves a dual purpose in being able to assign responsibility for contamination and also to keep their properties safe, Connell said.

"I think it's wise for them to," Connell said. "Most landlords don't want to because they don't want to be aware of it. If they know about it, then they're liable."

At Columbine Apartments, Manager Mel Day has a standing policy to test when cause is established, he said.

"I can't afford to go in and test every unit, every time," Day said. "I have brought (police) dogs in a couple of times."

Day, along with property managers around the area, stood behind their interview policies to keep potential problems out of their complexes.

"There has been no drug activity here," said Susan Sanborn, Ridgeview West manager. "I don't feel like there's a need to do that (test apartments regularly). I don't allow people in here that do drugs."

Under federal law, Ridgeview West can evict anyone involved with drug activity, a policy Sanborn said she would enforce.

She did have questions one time, and asked the Police Department to come out and run drug dogs through a vacated apartment. The dogs did not find any evidence of drug use, Sanborn said.

John Barr, Golden Arms Apartments manager, agreed with Sanborn.

"If the apartment manager is doing their job and keeping drug users out of their apartments, then this won't be a problem," Barr said. "We do not rent to drug users. No, I don't think we need to test for" meth contamination.

There is a drug problem in Craig, Barr said, and partly because of that, he stays vigilant about watching new tenants and looking out for any warning signs, he said.

One problem with monitoring is that the laws are new, and there is not a lot of education out there regarding contamination, Day said.

"As a member of the Landlord Association, everyone is really onboard with this, but there's not a lot of information out there," Day said. "If you're not educated, it's hard to be vigilant. I suspect there's a lot more out there than we know.

"But there's only so much we can do. It's not like we're not proactive on this, but there is a thing called the Constitution of the United States of America. We can't just look through people's things whenever we want to."

However, because of the recent incident that brought Connell to Craig, Day said he would be much more active about monitoring for meth use and contamination.

"Meth is probably the most evil thing to hit this planet, in terms of chemistry," Day said. "We are going to be more active."

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