Are Kiwis wasting thousands unnecessarily decontaminating their homes? Maria Slade, writing for The Spinoff, looks into a business growth story which appears to be solving a problem which doesn't exist.

Sugar soap and elbow grease

"Any standard detergent will do. I've suggested they should use two different ones if they want to be sure, and then get it retested," he says. That's Massey University environmental chemistry expert Nick Kim's antidote to a bit of methamphetamine on your walls. It's the advice he gives frantic homeowners who ring him after their properties have tested positive for P.

"Those that have got back to me have said, 'yeah, the second test came back fine'."

The country is in the grip of a frenzy over a supposed epidemic of methamphetamine contamination, Kim says. Landlords are evicting tenants, insurance premiums are rising, and property owners are spending tens of thousands of dollars on decontaminating houses at levels so low the risk to human health is neither appreciable nor quantifiable, Kim says.

Advertisement
A clandestine meth lab. The country is in the grip of a frenzy over a supposed epidemic of methamphetamine contamination.
A clandestine meth lab. The country is in the grip of a frenzy over a supposed epidemic of methamphetamine contamination.

After years of this chaos, exacerbated by New Zealand's void of usable methamphetamine testing guidelines, the government is about to put into law a new standard. If a property tests positive for meth at 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimetres it will be legally defined as contaminated. To put it in perspective, this is about 300 times lower than the minimum dose of amphetamine given to children to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

As well as formalising the standard, the proposed Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill will allow landlords to evict their tenants on just seven days' notice if the house tests positive at the magic new 1.5 cut-off point.

In a 2016 paper Kim advised that the lowest level of daily exposure to meth that could have a remotely plausible health effect on infants, the most vulnerable members of society, was 12 micrograms - about 8 times the new standard. At 1.5 residue levels are so negligible that to call it 'contamination' is an abuse of language, Kim argues.

Householders could measure for any number of nasties on a wall if they wanted to, he says. Fly spray, lead paint and mould are all arguably just as hazardous to children - and yet people don't test for those.

"A lot of commentary around this issue implies there is an acute health risk that's immediately hazardous if you're above the [meth] standard, and that's simply not true," Kim says.

It may shock many to learn that the New Zealand Drug Foundation, an organisation whose reason for being is to reduce the harm caused by substance abuse, backs Kim in considering the new standard to be risibly low.

Massey University's Nick Kim. Photo / Supplied
Massey University's Nick Kim. Photo / Supplied

Its submission to the Standards New Zealand committee formed to develop the new measure argued that New Zealand should follow other countries and only apply testing standards to properties where meth has been manufactured, not where it's been used. This is because the science on what effect the residues from P smoking has on health is absent, the foundation says. "There's no actual evidence to show any physical harm to any human being ever from having lived in a house in which there's been previous meth use," the foundation's senior adviser policy and advocacy Kali Mercier says.

The foundation's other beef is that while a testing standard has been created, the industry conducting those tests and carrying out the resulting decontamination work remains unregulated. Without such control it has no confidence that elements of the industry won't whip up and exploit homeowners' fears, executive director Ross Bell says.

The foundation has joined Labour Party housing spokesperson Phil Twyford in slamming Housing New Zealand (HNZ) for kicking out hundreds of tenants and allegedly wasting $73 million on remediating P houses over the past two years.

Although HNZ's actions to date have been based on the old inadequate guidelines, the new standard will still mean vulnerable people out on the street on the basis of meagre science, Bell says. The word is that the police are also opposed to HNZ evicting tenants at such low levels for the simple reason it is they who end up dealing with the consequences. Their advice to the social housing agency was reportedly 'tell your tenants to open a window or smoke outside'.

This apparent tolerance for meth use would be considered a step too far in many quarters. And what's a drug health body doing getting involved in housing issues anyway?

Bell says it's not the first time the Drug Foundation has stepped outside of its remit, and it has done so because nobody else is speaking up. Housing needs and addiction treatment must be linked, he argues.

"Even if you had a Housing New Zealand tenant who was still using meth despite it telling him to stop, I would still want him to stay in the house and other agencies to step up and provide some interventions," he says.

"As a country we've gone down this rabbit hole," Bell says. "I've described [meth testing] as the biggest scam that's ever been run in New Zealand, and I still hold that to be true."

Meth lowdown

Methamphetamine use in New Zealand isn't on the rise. In fact it's falling. The government's latest available Tackling Methamphetamine: Progress Report shows that 0.9 per cent of adult Kiwis used meth in 2014/15, down from 2.2 per cent in 2009 and in line with the global average of 0.7 per cent.

While convictions for meth offences rose over the same period, the number of those that were for manufacture and equipment related to the drug decreased. In the last few years the nature of the P market has changed, with fewer clandestine labs and more meth imported from cheap offshore sources, Bell says.

And yet insurance claims for the remediation of meth-contaminated properties have shot up from a handful each year to currently over a hundred a month, Insurance Council operations manager Terry Jordan says.

Most of these claims would be based on the old Ministry of Health lab clean-up guideline of 0.5 micrograms per 100 sq cm. The process of cooking P involves a host of other toxic chemicals which aren't tested for, thus if meth can be cleaned down to this level then most of the other dangers will have been removed also. It was never meant to be a measure of whether a property is considered contaminated, but in the absence of anything else this is how it has been used.

Testing company MethSolutions says two thirds of its positive P results come in at under the new 1.5 level, so the numbers of supposedly contaminated houses are set to reduce significantly.

Miles Stratford, Director of MethSolutions. Photo / Supplied
Miles Stratford, Director of MethSolutions. Photo / Supplied

A certain amount of hysteria has set in over the dangers of P, the Insurance Council's Jordan believes.

Faced with these increased claims, insurers have done what they always do and limited their liability. Whereas once property owners could claim for their total losses, now most insurers cap their cover for meth-related damage to between $25,000 and $30,000. Homeowners are also now lumbered with increased excesses and higher premiums, Jordan says.

Some insurance companies used to exclude damage from meth use on the grounds that it constituted gradual deterioration, but now the major players do cover use - and have put their premiums up accordingly.

While insurers aren't thrilled with the new 1.5 standard, it is better than they had before and they've accepted their lot - for now, Jordan says.

The problem is the lack of research into what, if anything, residue from P use does to people, he says.

"The science needs to be a lot clearer, and when the science is a lot clearer maybe the standard can be adjusted.

"There may well be more threat from nicotine, but nobody's done the science," Jordan says.

How much P is too much?

This is a question professional landlord Ron Goodwin answers very simply: zero.

It cost him over $100,000 to repair one of his properties after his "horrible" tenants trashed the Stanmore Bay, Whangaparoa home last year.

"As it transpired they were associated with the Headhunters gang, and they were harbouring escaped prisoners. On one occasion eight armed police raided the house."

Meth testing revealed the worst. Levels of up to 9 were detected in the rooms, although as far as Goodwin knows this was from P use, not manufacture. He has replaced the carpets, vinyl, curtains, doors, the wardrobes, the architraving, and the stove and heat pump. "It took 11 months before it was properly fixed and retested, before we could re-let the house," he says.

After a battle with his insurance company he did get a payout, but not enough to cover his costs and he's now been told his meth cover is capped at $30,000.

Goodwin goes to great lengths to ensure he never has a repeat of the situation. He used to take a punt on people, he says, but no more. He gets each of his 30 properties around greater Auckland and the Waikato meth tested before a new tenant moves in, and uses a rental agent to screen people very carefully.

"Unless they present themselves as extremely good tenants I don't want to know them.

"The result is I'm having long vacancies because it's only about one prospective tenant in 20 goes into my houses now."

His view of the new standards and impending legislation is that he doesn't want any tenants smoking P ever.

"So frankly if it tested even at 0.5, I would want to get rid of those tenants whatever way I possibly could. Because if they're going to smoke to 0.5, in no time at all it'll be 1.5, 2.0 and so on."

MethSolutions chief executive Miles Stratford says around a third of long term meth users try their hand at cooking the drug, and the difference between a little bit of meth in a property and a truckload can be one night. "When drug user X runs out of money, let's have the mobile lab rock up, shall we?"

He's seen the consequences of meth and is deeply unimpressed by the Drug Foundation's stance. One house in the east Auckland suburb of Flatbush he tested in the early days of his business sticks in his mind. "Dog faeces everywhere, the house a tip, mum confined to a bed out the back, the kids sleeping on foam mattresses on the floor without sheets or anything, and meth is all around them.

"The way I look at it is the rights of the individual in the world of the Drug Foundation to use illegal drugs shouldn't take precedence over the rights of... the owners of properties to actually make sure that their investment isn't compromised by people who use and manufacture the stuff."

Whether the standard is 0.5 or 1.5 makes no difference to his business, because people still need to manage the risk to their properties, he says.

And the testing and decontamination industry faces de facto regulation, Stratford says. Under the new rules participants must achieve an accreditation standard to continue operating. This will mean staff gaining an NZQA unit standard which is in the process of being set up.

Cooking versus smoking

If the big difference as the Drug Foundation argues is whether a house has been used for smoking P or cooking it, how do you tell?

Methamphetamine seized by Police.
Methamphetamine seized by Police.

The answer is you can't, Dr Jackie Wright of Flinders University in South Australia says. Apart from obvious outward signs - such as the police having raided the place, there's a pile of used chemical containers out the back, or the meth readings were off the scale - there is no way to distinguish, she says.

Wright's work is one of the few pieces of research into the effects of long term exposure to meth residue in a property. At least two of her case studies were houses where the drug had been used as opposed to manufactured, she says.

"We are seeing quite consistent health effects in people. Respiratory problems, eye irritations, skin irritations, behavioural changes particularly in children." These were people living in houses with meth readings of between 2 and 20 micrograms, she says.

Wright agrees much more research is needed to determine factors such as at what level meth residues start having an impact, and how they affect different people, but she is adamant that Kim and the New Zealand Drug Foundation are "very wrong" in their assertion that low levels of P residue cause no harm. Standards are set at a conservative level to build in an important safety buffer, she says.

"The uncertainty factor is there to deal with the fact that we don't know as much as we should about the toxicity of it for long term exposures, which is what happens when you live in a house.

"It's not appropriate to take that out because it suits your agenda."

It is a circular argument, because on this point Wright and Kim are in complete alignment.

"Standards are not set just below the level where you'd expect a health effect but some distance below, and that's what you're seeing here," Kim says.

Enshrining the standard into New Zealand law is not so much a toxicology decision as a policy one, saying 'this is what the country will tolerate', he observes.

The situation leaves Kiwi landlords and homeowners with a difficult set of decisions to make. They can don rubber gloves and get to work scrubbing the walls with Kim's sugar soap. They could decide to pay a clean-up company $2000 to $3000 to do it for them. Or they could spend much more, as one Auckland couple did. The pair, both lawyers, had lived in their ex-state house for three years and could not figure out why the father had developed a serious viral infection and asthma, while their young son was suffering from skin lesions and behavioural problems. Meth testing revealed readings of 3.5 in their son's bedroom. They didn't need to, but they chose to replace the gibbing and the insulation, MethSolutions' Stratford says.

"It's not a rational response," he says, "it's emotional."

Maria Slade is the author of Buyer Beware: A New Zealand Home Buyer's Guide published by Penguin Random