Montana has a methamphetamine problem. It’s showing up in just about every town, in the hands of users young and old and while addiction touches many lives, even more people may be unknowingly exposed to the drug.
Reporter Aja Goare went On Special Assignment to explain how our own homes may be contaminated by meth and how state law – does little to intervene. If the walls of some Montana homes could talk, they might tell a dirty secret.
“A safe estimate is at least 50% of all rentals in Billings are contaminated by meth,” said Big Sky Exterior Designs owner Rob Morehead.
For nearly two decades, Morehead has run a home remodeling business in Billings with his brother, Mark.
In addition to installing new floors, Morehead is also certified to remediate homes contaminated by methamphetamine, though Morehead said that service is rarely requested.
“In other states, if it tests positive for meth, it has to be cleaned or torn down period. And you can’t live in it,” said Morehead.
The state of West Virginia passed a law that condemns homes used to cook meth until the property can be remediated, but that’s not the case in Montana.
Montana law simply requires homeowners disclose any knowledge of meth contamination to a new tenant before selling or renting the home.
“I can only disclose what I know,” said Angela Klein, the President of Billings Association of Realtors.
Klein represents dozens of properties as a real estate agent, but before she signs on, she checks the Montana Department of Environmental Quality registry.
There are currently 18 Billings addresses listed as places where law enforcement discovered a clandestine meth lab. But even Deb Grim, the head of the Montana Meth Program, doesn’t think the list is complete.
“It doesn’t cover meth from smoking in a home and that contaminates a property just as much if not more than the manufacturing of meth,” said Grimm.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said at a hearing on a proposal for a mill levy that meth was involved in at least 425 criminal cases filed in the county last year. The drug is commonly used in a living space.
According to the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety, meth residue can last decades.
Sellers are not required by law to test the home for meth before selling or enlisting a realtor.
“If it’s not on the registry website, and the seller does not disclose it to us, there’s nothing for me to disclose to a buyer,” said Klein.
Grimm said meth residue left behind by a past resident can have serious implications on future residents.
“It’s extremely hazardous to small infants and toddlers because they’re typically crawling on the floor and putting everything in their mouth and they get a larger dose for their body weight of the meth,” said Grimm, who also noted that the elderly and people with immune deficiencies may also suffer symptoms of exposure.
Most of us know what using meth does to a person, but there’s little if any research on the health effects of chronic exposure to meth residue. Scholarly articles and medical trials link exposure to meth to neurological and respiratory problems.
Not one doctor at any of the three Billings hospitals knew enough about this to be interviewed by MTN News for this report.
The solution seems easy enough – test the home for meth and call someone like Morehead to clean the place up.
Tests that provide a simple “positive” or “negative” result are available for just $20, but remediation typically costs upwards of $20,000 and it’s not covered by insurance.
Morehead said the remediation of a mid-size home could take up to two weeks because meth permeates wood surfaces, seeps into wallpaper, and settles in air ducts, where it’s constantly sent out into the air.
“So not only do people have a chance of getting a dose of meth by touching it, ut now they are also inhaling it,” said Grimm.
The law is written in such a way that it encourages ignorance; no knowledge means no additional costs for the seller and no worry for the buyer. But even Klein, whose industry stands to benefit from the existing legislation, believes the law could be improved.
“Do I feel that maybe we need stronger laws? It would seem that if a home has been tested and there’s meth in the ducts, you would think it should be cleaned up,” said Klein.
Sen. Mary Caferro (D-Whitefish) proposed legislation in 2011 that wouldn’t make cleanup mandatory but would condemn any home that tested positive until it was cleaned. The bill didn’t get traction.
Morehead said he’s concerned about the unknown health impacts of chronic exposure, but he fears stricter regulations could put a hurt on the local economy.
“You’d love to pass laws and protect everyone but that just can’t happen,” said Morehead. “I think we’ve got to look at it economically and from a public safety aspect as well.”