Meth labs have been a growing problem throughout Colorado and across the U.S. Nationally, more than 8,000 meth labs were raided last year. In Colorado alone, the number of meth lab seizures reported by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation has increased threefold in the past three years, up to 450 a year. Law enforcement estimates that only 10% of all labs in Colorado are discovered or seized. The problem has affected both apartment communities and single-family rentals.
The chemicals used to cook meth are very dangerous. Meth residue leaves an apartment or single-family house uninhabitable until cleaned up. Some meth ingredients are lye, paint thinner, battery acid, drain cleaner, pool chemicals, fingernail polish remover, brake cleaner, varnish or lacquer, lithium batteries, antiseptic, camping stove fuel and charcoal lighter fluid. Meth waste products create a flammable toxic sludge. Exposure to these chemicals affects upper and lower airways with symptoms including coughing, throat irritation and difficulty breathing. Exposure can also cause pulmonary edema, chemical pneumonitis, and lung injury. Other symptoms of acute exposure include eye irritation, nausea, vomiting or dizziness and lack of coordination. If you discover a meth lab on your property, you should take the following steps. Secure the property. If the residents have not vacated, commence eviction proceedings. Notify applicable police, fire, and health departments. Notify your insurance carrier. Hire qualified industrial hygienist and meth lab cleanup contractor. Make sure that all state cleanup requirements have been met. Comply with all disclosure requirements.
Failure to clean up or disclose meth lab activity can lead to significant legal liability. Potential liability scenarios are endless. A light switch spark can ignite meth vapors causing explosions and fire. An Adams County resident was exposed to a hazardous level of meth residue when cleaning his carpet. Because of the meth residue in the carpet, the steam cleaning caused toxic vapors. The resident passed out, eventually had to crawl out of the apartment, and suffered extensive brain damage. Residents increasingly file lawsuits for failure to disclose meth labs, and for failure to properly clean meth labs.
Given the increasing number of meth labs, all managers should be familiar with and on the look out for meth labs. Many exhaustive lists of tell tale meth lab signs appear on the internet. Here are a few of the most common meth lab signs:
• Unusual strong chemical odors such as ether, ammonia (smell similar to cat urine) and acetone (smell similar to fingernail polish). • Excessive amounts of trash, particularly chemical containers, coffee filters with red stains, or duct tape rolls. • Soft drink bottles with hoses running from them. • Excess matches. • Unusual amount of glass containers.
Meth labs lead to various problems regarding residents’ personal property. Specifically, some residents who claim not to be involved with the meth lab want to retrieve their property from the rental used as a meth lab. Even residents arrested for meth lab activities demand return of their personal property. Fortunately, the law is clear on this issue. Once law enforcement notifies you of a meth lab, the resident has ten days to remove or clean his or her personal property according to board rules. If the personal property owner fails to remove the personal property within ten days, you may dispose of the personal property during the cleanup process without liability to the resident for such disposition. If the resident removes any property, he is still responsible for appropriately disposing of the property or cleaning the property to state standards. Accordingly, you can insist that the resident provide adequate assurances to this effect prior to allowing the resident to remove any property.
Colorado law imposes strict requirements for cleaning up meth labs. Upon a law enforcement officer notifying you that chemicals, equipment, or supplies indicating a meth lab have been discovered, you are required either to cleanup the meth lab or demolish the property. Meth lab cleanups are complicated and costly. Many insurance policies may not cover meth lab cleanups. Given the significant costs, you should review your insurance policy to make sure that meth lab cleanup costs are covered.
State regulations describe the mandatory four stage cleanup process: Assessment, Decontamination, Cleanup Verification and Final Report. If all of the cleanup stages are completed satisfactorily, the governing body will issue a certificate of compliance as proof of cleanup. There may be additional county regulations in addition to state regulations, and those must be followed as well. Meth lab cleanup is complicated and costly. Usually, you must hire both an industrial hygienist and a meth lab cleanup contractor, unless you hire an all in one firm.
A Tri Counties Health Department qualified certified industrial hygienist from A.G. Wassenaar, Joe Gifford, explained that his company does the initial testing on the property and develops a work plan, and then the second company cleans the property based on the plan. After each cleanup, the industrial hygienist must sample and test. Sampling must be repeated after each cleaning until the samples are at or below acceptable levels. As soon as the property is “clean”, the industrial hygienist signs the final report. Each visit from A.G. Wassenaar costs between $1500 -$2500. Unfortunately, nearly all properties must be cleaned more than once, and some as many as five times before they pass inspection.
According to Gerry Murt a representative of Custom Environmental Services (CES), a Tri Counties Health Department qualified cleanup contractor, the cleanup of a small apartment can take as little as two weeks up to one month and costs on average from $10,000 – $15,000, if everything goes smoothly. A mid-size home generally takes a couple of months to cleanup and costs are closer to $50,000 on average. In older homes, while attempting to clean up meth lab contamination, contractors may find asbestos. This is a whole new can of worms that must be dealt with separately and has costs in addition to the meth lab cleanup. The contractor must continue to clean the home or apartment after each failed test until the test results show acceptable chemical levels.
If your rental has been used as a meth lab, do you have to disclose this fact to prospective residents? If you knew the property was used as a meth lab, the law creates an absolute duty to disclose. If you knew about a meth lab and fail to disclose this fact to a prospective resident, the law imposes significant liability on you. You are liable for cleanup costs to clean the rental to state standards. You are liable to the resident for all damages to the resident, including but not limited to health related costs. You are liable to the resident for the resident’s attorneys’ fees and costs. A resident has three years to sue you for meth lab related damages.
The meth lab disclosure law does have one significant exception. You do not have to disclose the presence of a meth lab to a prospective resident if you cleaned up the rental to state standards and received a certification that such cleanup standards were met. Cleaning up to state standards makes you immune from future civil suits from residents. In other words, if you cleanup to state standards, residents cannot sue you for alleged meth lab related damages.
As with any issue, there are countless gray areas and scenarios. What if law enforcement never notified you of a meth lab, and you were not forced to clean up? What if there was some evidence of a meth lab but it was hardly conclusive, and thus was never treated as a meth lab? What if there was a meth lab, and you just never knew? While liability in these cases is not a foregone conclusion, you still face significant potential legal exposure.
Arguing that you “didn’t know” there was a meth lab may make the meth lab cleanup and disclosure statutes inapplicable. However, the resident can still sue you for big money damages. The resident will argue that the only reason you didn’t know was because you were negligent. If some evidence of a meth lab is present, the resident will argue that you knew but closed your eyes to the problem, or worse, covered it up. Courts are very likely to impose a high standard of knowledge on the rental industry given the obvious tell tale signs of meth labs. You know when the carpet needs to be replaced. You are now trying to tell this court that you didn’t know there was a meth lab? Given the enormous potential liability, you are playing with legal dynamite if you fail to act on any evidence of a meth lab, or fail to manage your property in a reasonable way that would certainly lead to the discover of meth lab.
Meth lab related law may evolve further in the next year. Legislation may be introduced in January forcing the rental industry to disclose meth labs even if state cleanup standards have been met. Legislation will be introduced creating a warranty of habitability. A warranty of habitability could affect meth lab legal requirements. Any changes in meth lab law will be covered in a future newsletter or on our website htspc.com.
Contact Info: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment 303-692-2000 Adams, Arapahoe, and Douglas Counties, Tri County Health Department 303-363-3056 Jefferson County Department of Health & Environment 303-271-5755 Boulder County Public Health Department, Environmental Health Division 303- 441-1564 Larimer County Department of Health and Environment 970- 498-6775 El Paso County Department of Health and Environment 719-575-8636 Weld County Department of Public Health, Environmental Health Services 970- 304-6415 Joe Gifford, A.G. Wassenaar, 303-759-8373, www.agwassenaar.com Gerry Murt, Custom Environmental Services, 303-423-9949, www.customsvcs.com