Pubdate: Wed, 26 Jan 2000
Source: Press-Enterprise (CA)
Copyright: 2000 The Press-Enterprise Company
Contact:  3512 Fourteenth Street Riverside, CA 92501
Author: Dion Nissenbaum


Two states tackle lab cleanup problem: California's northern neighbors,
Oregon and Washington, have fewer meth labs but far more safeguards to
protect residents.

California's two northern neighbors have taken greater strides than the
Golden State in making sure that homes used to cook methamphetamine are
properly cleaned up before unwitting families move in.

While the state of California pays people to haul away the most dangerous
parts of drug labs -- the chemicals and cooking equipment 97 it leaves the
rest to the counties. Most counties, in turn, basically leave it up to the
property owner.

Environmental experts around California say that they need state laws and
guidelines to help them make sure that homes are cleaned up.

State regulation would standardize the cleanup process and provide

money and expertise to determine what levels of residual chemicals are
safe. State laws also could provide efficient tools for punishing property
owners who refuse to comply with cleanup orders.

Washington and Oregon already have them.

In 1989, Washington created statewide guidelines that require local health
officials to figure out if a home is too contaminated for use. If they
think the place is a health risk, they will draft a cleanup plan and
require the owner to hire a hazardous-waste specialist to do the work.

After that, the health official will go back and make sure the place has
been properly cleaned up. In more than two-thirds of the cases

last year, homes remained empty -- deemed "unfit for use" by the state 97
after property owners failed to clean them.

The state even has a Web site ( with a list
of the places drug labs have been found, the names of the property owners
and whether the owner has hired someone to take care of the dangers.

In a fact sheet on illegal drug labs, Washington tells people that

they should never rent or buy a place that hasn't been properly cleaned up
and that they should know that "no decontamination procedure can guarantee
absolute safety for re-occupancy."

Although there have been no studies that can tell health officials

what dangers remain when people move into homes used to make
methamphetamine, Washington and Oregon take a conservative approach.

Washington requires owners to make sure that there are no more than five
micrograms of meth residue per square foot in a house. In Oregon, the level
is 0.5 micrograms.

"If you think about it, there's really no other choice," said Duncan
Gilroy, a toxicologist for the Oregon Health Department. "If you're
ignorant, you're cautious."

Oregon also takes steps to warn prospective buyers or tenants about
contaminated residences. It puts drug labs on a special list, and
information about the possible hazards is added to the property title.

"We want to err on the protective side," Gilroy said. "We're the public
health agency, and that's what we do.

"We picture an infant crawling around on the floor, and you want to make
sure that we've done all that we can to make that a safe situation."

Washington and Oregon may have taken the lead in creating such broad
guidelines, but programs in both states only do so much.

Neither system ensures that an owner won't use soap, water and paint to
clean up a property and rent it out again without telling the new tenant
about the drug lab, despite its designation as unfit for use.

"Certainly, it could happen if the state didn't find out about it," Gilroy
said. "I assume it's a rarity. I hope it is."

Officials from both states hope the threat of civil liability will

dissuade owners from renting properties that they know are contaminated.
State records could be used as evidence in civil lawsuits against owners if
a tenant becomes sick or injured.

In 1998, Washington placed 105 former drug labs on its "unfit for use"
list, said Lew Kittle, manger of the state's drug-lab cleanup program. Of
those, 28 have been declared free of hazards.
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