It’s easy to believe that meth labs are a myth, existing randomly in tucked away corners of suburbs that don’t affect us. This is far from the truth however and landlords, investors and property managers need to be ever diligent to spot and report them, for the sake of all of us. According to the 5th National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program report (August 2018), methamphetamine is now the most commonly used illicit drug in Australia and we are ranked 2nd in the world for total highest methamphetamine consumption after the US (of the 23 countries with comparable reported data).
Meth is the abbreviation for methamphetamine, and is commonly known as speed, crystal meth, or these days – ice. It is illegal in Australia and therefore illegally produced or ‘cooked’ in clandestine labs, using a serious cocktail of readily available chemicals and over-the-counter medications (such as pseudoephedrine) that can be poisonous, flammable, and explosive if not handled properly.
Not in my backyard
The belief that many property owners have is that meth labs happen ‘in other parts of town’, but not theirs. However, in the Australian Institute of Criminology’s last Illicit Drug Data Report (2016-2017; Clandestine laboratories and precursors section), it was found that 436 labs were detected nationally and 63.9% of those were in residential areas. Police discovered one of the largest ever meth labs recently in suburban Morphett Vale, south of Adelaide’s city. The report also found that Queensland has the highest incidence of meth labs nationally, while increases from the previous reporting period were recorded in South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory whereas other states were showing slight decreases. The report also looked into the size and capacity of these labs and found that 49.5% of the labs nationally were addict based – meaning people who were addicted to the drug were cooking it at home, or in a residential location.
This is where you as a property owner might start to feel very nervous. As crime investigation units close in on meth production nationally, addicts and producers have become more creative around where to exercise their very specific culinary skills. Small time manufacturers don’t want to put their own home at risk of course, so the natural conclusion is to rent someone else’s – putting the risk and the damage and destruction of property into somebody’s else’s hands. Fabricating a squeaky-clean property application is simple - if they’re ok with a bit of identity fraud and can manage to charm their way into your good books.
How to spot your local neighbourhood meth lab
Once the lease is signed, the new tenants need only pay the rent on time and stay under the radar. All the while they’ll be hoping you don’t spot any of the key warning signs - that the property has become a fully functioning meth lab. This of course is easy for the first few months, but the time for paying attention and toeing the line comes at their first tenancy inspection. Ideally all evidence of an illegal drug lab has been removed or hidden away, however you should be paying attention to particular signs that cannot always be camouflaged.
1. Unusual smells and stains
It can be hard to determine what exactly an unusual smell or stain is when it comes to rental properties, but where meth labs are concerned, there can be little doubt. Deadly vapours are created with the blending and cooking of chemicals, usually with amateur equipment, so the result is a unique odour, that some say smells like strong acetone. There may also be strange stains from spills or small fires on carpets or floors, or discolouration to walls due to the chemical residue.
2. Internal damage to property
Because the combination of chemicals being cooked can be so dangerous, drug producers will often protect themselves by removing fire hazards and smoke or fire alarms. Empty light sockets, spare light bulbs lying around and smoke detectors without batteries may be evident. The toxic cocktail of chemicals will create a fine coating on all surfaces, so discolouration may be evident on walls, floors, ceilings, curtains, soft furnishings and air vents, as well as traces of rust on metal fittings and fixtures. In extreme cases, false walls may have even been built so the lab can be permanently set up but hidden away when people come to the house, so furniture or shelving may be unusually placed. It’s common that they will try to detract attention from the property too, so in the week or so leading up to the inspection, it might be worth driving past a few times and check to see if the curtains are drawn, or if the windows are blacked out with foil.
3. Check the rubbish bins and the garage
Take the opportunity to get rid of some of your car rubbish in the larger outside bins when you arrive, so you can check for any suspicious materials that may have been hastily discarded. Discreetly using the house’s internal rubbish bin will give you the chance to sneak a peek inside it for any evidence of drug paraphernalia. Things to look for include; disused buckets and chemical storage containers (such as paint thinners), an excessive number of jars or bowls and used or unused rubber gloves. Also, any burnt out vessels, large amounts of discarded packaging from cold and flu medications, bags of manure or anything else that looks out of place, given who the tenants are, what they do and what other equipment is in the house. There may also be hoses, pipes, solvents or strange looking apparatus that can raise suspicion, if found in conjunction with some of the other items listed here.
4. Suspicious behaviour
It may not be evident at the inspection, but if suspicions are raised during the inspection, behaviour may well be deemed as more suspicious afterwards than previously thought. If the tenants are not living at the property they will need to come and go regularly to check on operations. If they are selling from the property as well, there will be a steady stream of vehicles and foot traffic coming and going at various hours of the day and night. If suspicions are raised during the inspection, you could make casual enquiries to the local police or drive by regularly in the days after the inspection, just to make sure nothing unusual is happening.
What are the key issues for landlords?
As a landlord or property owner, your main priority should be that the property is in good and safe condition for any tenant who lives there and does not pose any health risks for residents who call it home. There are a few key issues to keep in mind that will help you be aware but not alarmed, where meth contamination of your property is concerned.
• Health impact – although there have been few cases of health complaints due to meth contamination, this may not always be the case so it’s good to know the risks. Having a clandestine meth lab in your property does raise health and safety issues and both users and those exposed to contamination (including users obviously) are at risk of eye and skin irritation, respiratory issues, behavioural problems and a decreased immune response over time.
• Safety risk – because of the cocktail of chemicals being used, there is a good chance your property could go up in flames in an instant, costing you not only your property but potentially the lives of residents as well.
• Property damage - contamination can cost you many tens of thousands of dollars to remediate. Because the chemicals seep into surfaces, they can eat away at foundation materials, meaning often your property will need much more than a fresh coat of paint. In some cases whole walls will have to be replastered or removed, carpets replaced and so on. If your property tests positive for meth residue at high levels, it may be that any current or subsequent tenants may need to vacate the property while it is professionally decontaminated, which can be, at best inconvenient and at worst, extremely costly (and lengthy) process.
What can landlords do to protect themselves?
• Ideally – have a property manager take care of your property. They are at the coal face of this issue in Australia right now and they will be much better placed than you to detect an issue early, know how to respond to it and to advise you on the right kinds of things you need to do with regard to prevention, protection and restoration (in a worst case scenario).
• Understand your responsibilities – under Australian laws (EPA & Local Govt), meth contamination is positive if levels above 0.5 micrograms, in a space 10cm square are detected.
• Know the fire risks – what chemicals are involved, what they can do and how to manage a chemical fire. Then have the necessary fire safety equipment on hand.
• Install a ‘meth alarm’ which is a device that sends an alert to your phone when meth concentration is above certain levels.
• Have your property tested between tenants – either get professionals in (search ‘meth contamination testing Australia’) or buy a DIY testing kit online.
• If your property does test positive, have the property properly decontaminated by an industry certified meth lab remediation expert. Look for ‘professional meth lab cleaners’ online for a number of specialist companies.
• Get yourself the best insurance money can buy! Specifically, landlord insurance that covers ‘damage from chemical contamination as a result of the manufacture, storage or distribution of any controlled drug’.