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Poor foundations – testing homes for meth gone awry


Boarded up HNZ Greys Ave flats in Auckland

Across New Zealand, tenants are losing their homes and possessions – or receiving debilitating bills – because their houses are found to be meth contaminated. Russell Brown looks at a poorly informed phenomenon of near hysteria that is putting vulnerable people out onto the street.

In March this year, all major New Zealand news organisations reported what seemed a shocking story: four of 19 tenants in a new Housing New Zealand development in Christchurch had been evicted only months after it opened because they were found to have contaminated their houses with methamphetamine.

Under the headline ‘Babies living in P contaminated houses’, the New Zealand Herald reported that “solo mothers with young children” were among the tenants.

Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett lamented the “quite serious health effects … with skin and respiratory conditions” to which “wee babies”were being exposed and hailed the tough new line being taken by Housing New Zealand.

“Housing New Zealand is taking a much stricter approach to detecting and dealing with serious drug use in its properties. Frontline staff are better trained to look out for contamination, use and manufacturing. If a property is found to be contaminated, the tenancy will be terminated … When we have hundreds of people waiting for social housing, it’s disappointing people break the law and deprive others of homes.”

It was the definitive surfacing of a problem that had been building for three or four years. A problem rooted in a poor understanding of science, political posturing, moral panic, bad reporting, exploitative business practices and the unaccountable silence of the one government ministry that could have stopped it. A problem that has needlessly cost Housing New Zealand millions of dollars and hundreds of its tenants their homes.

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It’s unclear exactly when Housing New Zealand’s “much stricter approach” commenced, but its key feature was the expansion of the corporation’s focus on properties that have been used to manufacture methamphetamine (meth) to those where meth might simply have been consumed.

One thing has not changed. The sole foundation for Housing New Zealand’s policy is Guidelines for the Remediation of Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratory Sites, a document published by the Ministry of Health in August 2010 (see sidebar),

As the title indicates, the guidelines advise on the clean-up of former meth labs contaminated with the range of chemicals associated with meth manufacture. The implications of the guidelines being used outside that purpose, by an unregulated testing industry, have been considerable.

The guidelines are cited repeatedly in Managing methamphetamine (P) in Housing New Zealand managed properties, a 59-page document published and distributed to staff in March of this year, which sets out a process to “safely manage methamphetamine contamination” in the corporation’s properties.

The first of the “business rules” it lists declares “Housing New Zealand has a zero tolerance to the use or manufacture of methamphetamine in properties it manages”. Others forbid Housing New Zealand staff from entering any property that tests over the Ministry of Health guidelines and require contractors who enter to wear protective equipment.

The listed “triggers” for the process almost all involve “suspicion”, complaints and advice from the Police “or a third party”. A subsequent ‘Procedures’ section lists 14 different “potential sources for suspicion”, including information and allegations from neighbours regarding “drug related activities at a property”. As written, the process could be invoked by an anonymous complaint that a tenant had smoked a joint or simply behaved strangely.

For each property, the process itself can involve 20 to 30 Housing New Zealand staff, from frontline tenancy managers all the way up to the chief operating officer. It’s a very substantial demand on time and resources.

A tenancy manager spoken to by Matters of Substance said that, while it was possible that some managers may have invoked the process to get rid of troublesome tenants, this was not the rule: “We’re not doing this for the sake of it. We’re not monsters.”

In June, Housing New Zealand’s meth programme team ran a series of sessions with regional managers in which it became clear that some managers were questioning the process.

A subsequent Q&A document acknowledges that long void times while properties await remediation have been impacting on staff KPIs and considerably adding to workloads.

Managers also asked about what the document refers to as “Media and ‘expert’ commentary”, stating “we are misapplying the standards, e.g. as an excuse to get rid of some tenants. They say it’s scaremongering and costly, which need not be the case.” The answer is a reaffirmation that the Ministry of Health “standards” must be adhered to “until we have new standards [or a] standards review … We are keen to review these standards.”

Managers raised concerns about the impacts of the policy and “anti-social behaviour (ASB) punitive measures” on families. The official response is that “we have to apply our ASB” for any illegal activity, but Housing New Zealand would “work with support agencies, as per usual, to try and protect families and children.”

The rest of the Q&A moves into unheralded territory.

“We have spoken about drug testing tenants before they move in,” reads one section. “But for now, we have a responsibility to provide homes to those on [the Ministry of Social Development’s] Social Housing Register and will continue to do that.”

The cited obstacles to compulsory drug testing are a matter of weighing up “costs vs outcomes and real risk”, says the document, noting that a tenant could pass screening but “their associates may end up contaminating our property when they visit”.

The considerable political and human rights implications of forcing vulnerable people into drug tests as a condition of shelter are not canvassed.

...people dwelling in a house where previous tenants had smoked methamphetamine, and there is some evidence of low concentrations on surfaces, have minimal risks of toxicity”, comparable to people who lived in a house where cigarettes or cannabis had been smoked at some point.

The document acknowledges “we will never be ‘drug free’ in our properties” and that “we have not – yet – seen a reduction in use” but says that “tenants trying to conceal use more” is a sign that “they are more aware of just how seriously we are taking this matter”.

The document takes Housing New Zealand far beyond the boundaries of the property management company it professes to be. No private landlord could consider requiring its tenants to submit to drug testing. In a sense, it creates two different kinds of citizen.

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Almost unnoticed in the torrent of news stories that followed the Christchurch evictions, the Science Media Centre (SMC) sought responses from scientists with relevant expertise and published them on 24 March.

Dr Leo Schep, a toxicologist at the National Poisons Centre, told the SMC that “people dwelling in a house where previous tenants had smoked methamphetamine, and there is some evidence of low concentrations on surfaces, have minimal risks of toxicity”, comparable to people who lived in a house where cigarettes or cannabis had been smoked at some point.

Massey University’s Dr Nick Kim, a peer reviewer of the original Ministry of Health guidelines, said his guess was that, in most cases, even “quite high levels of (non-powder) methamphetamine on a surface may pose minimal risk”.

What the scientists had to say did not get through to Housing New Zealand’s Chief Operating Officer, Paul Commons, who in mid-May issued a press release hailing the “strong message” sent down by a Tenancy Tribunal order that a former tenant must pay nearly $20,000 in remediation costs after “contaminating” her home by smoking P in it.

“As a responsible landlord, our policy is to not knowingly permit tenants to live in a property that registers readings above Ministry of Health levels. This supports our commitment to providing a healthy environment for our tenants,” said Commons.

If Housing New Zealand’s senior managers were publicly standing firm on the zero-tolerance policy, privately they were becoming worried by the costs. On 12 April, one senior manager happened to hear Dr Kim interviewed on Radio New Zealand’s afternoon chat hour The Panel. Two weeks later, a Housing New Zealand programme manager flew to Wellington to meet with Dr Kim.

“It seemed to be a surprise to them, the type of thing that I was saying,” says Dr Kim. “They seemed keen not to spend more money. They seemed a bit alarmed about how much they’d been spending.” Matters of Substance understands that Housing NZ has budgeted $22 million for testing and remediation in 2016 – and that that budget is very likely to be breached.

On 18 June, Dr Kim sent Housing New Zealand a 30-page report detailing his expertise, which includes a PhD in environmental analytical chemistry, 10 years as a technical specialist in chemical contamination issues for Waikato Regional Council, work on the national standards for soil contamination and, of course, peer review of the Ministry of Health guidelines.

“In my opinion, exceedance of a methamphetamine surface loading of 0.5 μg/100 cm2 by up to 25 times does not denote the onset of any health risk,” the report says. “All that can be said is that a very conservative guideline value has been exceeded. For this reason, properties where methamphetamine residues are less than 12 μg/100 cm2 should really not be referred to as ‘contaminated’ by methamphetamine.”

If the definition of “contaminated land” in the Resource Management Act was to be applied to houses, he wrote, it “would (rightly) preclude most houses where methamphetamine has been smoked but not manufactured”. The report also notes, by way of comparison, treatment of ADHD in children with Desoxyn, which is methamphetamine, in the US. The typical initial 5 mg prescription for a six-year-old child is 46 times the “health reference dose” – that is, the dose that could be received from a surface with the lowest level of meth residue that could plausibly represent a health risk.

That level is 12.5 micrograms – or 25 times the Ministry of Health guideline. Dr Kim says it represents not only the lowest point at which any health effect might occur in an infant in constant contact with walls or floors but that “it’s the most sensitive infant in the population, an infant who’s extraordinarily sensitive to meth”.

At the 0.5 microgram Ministry of Health guideline value – the point at which hundreds of properties are being declared uninhabitable – the possible dose from a wall or other surface is “1000 to 2000 times lower than the initial 5 mg dose given to a six-year-old for ADHD.”

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The meth contamination panic did not begin in social housing. It developed over several years in the wake of the 2010 Ministry of Health guidelines.

In March 2014, Joanne Kearney, Team Leader for Consumer Issues at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), told the Dominion Post she was concerned about the rapid growth in the number of companies claiming to test dwellings for meth residues and the potential for abuse that represented: “The problem is undetectable to the homeowner, and it is also highly emotive and involves the potential for harm.”

“At MBIE, we were in the same branch as Tenancy Services, and I saw some of the examples where tenants were being thrown out or taken to the Tribunal over houses that had tested positive for meth,” says Kearney, who has since left the ministry.

“And I saw landlords, the Property Investors Association, a whole bunch of people getting really concerned about this – and I started to wonder what was going on with the testing. It was private companies doing the testing, and I wondered how you could check whether they’d done the test properly and whether they were reliable and then about the downstream results. People would end up being thrown out of their accommodation or told they had to destroy all their goods.

“That rang the alarm bells you see in some types of scams. There’s an imbalance of information. The homeowner or the tenant knows very little about the science behind this testing or what’s going on.”

The 2014 Dominion Post story was only about dwellings contaminated through being used as clandestine meth labs – which pose known health risks – but already, as the testing industry flourished, positive tests were being registered at houses that had never been labs.

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On the same day as the Christchurch development story broke, Newshub reported claims by an “industry expert”, David Kilburn, that meth-infected dwellings could be “the next ‘leaky homes’ crisis”. Kilburn said meth contamination was potentially a “billion dollar problem” and scorned Ministry of Health estimates that 50 houses were contaminated annually as a gross underestimate.

Kilburn is the general manager of Hamilton-based Envirocheck, which offers both testing and remediation services. (Although the Ministry of Health guidelines say that “professionals undertaking assessment and testing must operate independently of commercial decontamination (clean-up) companies”, they have no force, and it is relatively common for testing and clean-up companies to operate under the same roof or to be linked to each other.)

Envirocheck has earned itself a string of news stories, including one in 2013 in which company owner Todd Sheppard told the Waikato Times that 80 percent of New Zealand houses had “some level of P contamination”.

Envirocheck’s website still warns that “Even smoking outside will still contaminate the house because the vapours will follow you inside and residues will contaminate your clothes, which will cross-contaminate everything they touch inside the home.”

Another testing company owner, MethSolutions’ Miles Stratford, told the Waikato Times there were “high dangers of health risks” in properties where only meth use had occurred.

After the Christchurch story, a number of “experts” from commercial testing companies were quoted in news stories, making alarming claims about the meth problem. Some tenants of meth-tested properties reported mysterious health effects.

Kearney says that the kind of effects reported “are often triggered by health scares – respiratory complaints, headaches, aching limbs. Those things can be triggered by being told that you’re at risk. Humans are immensely suggestible.”

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Boarded up HNZ Greys Ave flats in Auckland, view 2

Another key actor in the story has been the Tenancy Tribunal. In all cases, the Tribunal regards even a single result above the Ministry of Health guideline as evidence that a property has been damaged to the extent that it is uninhabitable.

Chief Tenancy Adjudicator Melissa Poole has been telling private property investors that no one should even enter a rental property where any part has tested above the guideline – and, further, that any level of “contamination” is unacceptable in a rental property, and all properties must be cleaned to zero (which, in practice, means the detection limit of a professional laboratory). Unsurprisingly, investors often have trouble finding a cleaning firm that will commit to such a thing.

Director of the New Zealand Property Investors Federation Andrew King told Matters of Substance that Poole has refused to budge from her interpretation of the guidelines.

“What concerns me about the Tenancy Tribunal decisions is that they’re accepting the reports from the meth testing companies and using the meth lab guidelines from the Ministry of Health, which are not intended to be used in that way,” says Kearney. “And the meth industry is backing them up.” Most Housing New Zealand 90-day-notices don’t reach the Tribunal, but enough have to be able to form a picture of what has been happening under Housing New Zealand’s “zero-tolerance” policy for meth. One tenant, Iosefo Lematua, challenged a Housing New Zealand demand for $15,000 in remediation costs after his tenancy was terminated. Lematua “vigorously denied” consuming meth, andHousing New Zealand, which had not taken a baseline test when he moved in in 2011, could not prove he had either used or permitted the use of meth. Housing New Zealand’s application for costs was dismissed, but Lematua appears to still have suffered the standard 12-month blacklisting after his being issued a 90-day-notice.

In another case where there was no prior baseline test, an evicted tenant was hit in absentia with $13,000 in costs after the Tribunal found that, on the balance of probabilities, the temporary presence of another man with a history of meth offences indicated the damage had been caused during the tenancy.

... advice to Hika that he should dispose of his belongings as “absolutely absurd. I have no other word for it … apart from insane.

In one notable case, Joseph Hika of Tauranga actually won some compensation from Housing New Zealand for rent paid after the corporation tested his house in response to complaints about his behaviour from neighbours. The tests found the level in one part of the house was just over the Ministry of Health guideline value. Four other parts tested at levels well below the guideline, near the limit of detection.

Housing New Zealand sent Hika an “evacuation” letter (a thing that does not formally exist), telling him he and his family should leave and not return and that, if he remained in the house, it was at his own risk. He was also told that he should dispose of his possessions because he would not be able to take them to a new Housing New Zealand property. Housing New Zealand denied telling Hika to dispose of his possessions, but the adjudicator pointed out that its own report had referred to the disposal of his goods.

But it wasn’t really a win for Hika. He was eventually served with a 90-day eviction notice, and it’s not clear whether he and his family were rehoused. Although there had been no baseline test before he moved in eight months before the positive test, Hika was not entitled to compensation for the “contamination” of his goods because he couldn’t prove he hadn’t caused it.

Dr Kim describes the advice to Hika that he should dispose of his belongings as “absolutely absurd. I have no other word for it … apart from insane.”

The Hika decision also said that “the Tribunal has frequently found that the premises as a whole are uninhabitable because of the risk of contamination being transferred from one room to another”. Dr Kim says that, while trace transfer on clothes is possible, “the meth concentrations would be dropping by magnitudes each time”, so such findings make little scientific sense.

The importance of Dr Kim’s role as the only expert willing to talk to the media – after speaking to the SMC, Dr Schep referred all requests for comment to Dr Kim – can hardly be overstated. He worked with TVNZ’s Fair Go reporter Garth Bray on a particularly useful segment of a programme dedicated to the “contamination” issue.

Unfortunately, other parts of the programme, reported by different members of the Fair Go team, were not so helpful. The programme closed on the story of a rental tenant who had been told to destroy her possessions by a testing company – without identifying the company or questioning that advice.

Fair Go also showed one testing company checking another’s tests – and coming up with a radically higher result. That, says Dr Kim, was because the company apparently didn’t understand what it was doing. It multiplied the result by the result of a composite test (that is, eight different swabs) by eight, rather than dividing it by eight to get an average.

“They clearly didn’t understand the nature of the composites,” says Dr Kim, “and because of that, they got a number that was above 0.5 and told the people their house was uninhabitable and needed more testing.”

It’s also not unknown for results from Hamilton’s Hill Laboratories, which carries out most of the analysis for the industry, to be misinterpreted. The lab has a detection limit of 0.02 micrograms and thus reports a negative result as “<0.02”. Dr Kim says he’s aware of a case where a potential buyer didn’t understand the result, “so the sale fell through because meth wasn’t detected”.

He says his impression is that the indoor testing industry “as a group are simply not familiar with the normal risk assessment protocols that apply to ordinary contaminated site investigations”.

In a follow-up Fair Go report, Dr Kim also advised on the testing of New Zealand banknotes for meth residue. All five notes tested positive, and one came up at the equivalent of 1.5 micrograms per 100 cm2 – or three times the guideline.

The exercise was intended to demonstrate the way a background level of methamphetamine residue could complicate analysis and to highlight the fact that panic was being generated over meth residues in houses that were lower than could be expected on an ordinary five dollar note.

Unfortunately, the message was widely misinterpreted. The long list of people calling Dr Kim for advice was joined by pokie machine operators worrying that their staff were being meth poisoned by handling money.

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If the “meth contamination” mess can fairly be described as a moral panic, it has broader implications than most moral panics. Not only is it creating havoc in the property investment market, it is prompting Housing New Zealand to do precisely the wrong thing with vulnerable people.

“Throwing people out on the street is not only a terrible thing to do, it also stands in clear contradiction to New Zealand’s National Drug Policy, which recognises housing among the social factors associated with drug use and focuses on harm minimisation,” says Dr Lucy Telfar Barnard of the Department of Public Health at Otago University’s School of Medicine.

“We think the health and wellbeing risks of eviction from affordable housing are likely to be greater than the risks of living in a dwelling with residue from meth use. If a dwelling has residue from meth use, it’s either from use by the occupants or their friends or family or from previous occupants. If it arose during the current occupancy, the best response is intervention to reduce the risks of drug-related harm, which is best delivered with a foundation of affordable housing. Eviction will magnify rather than reduce those risks.”

When asked what advice was taken on the social impact of evicting tenants thought to be drug users, Housing New Zealand responded that “no such advice was considered,” adding that “Housing New Zealand’s role is to provide home to those with the greatest need. Methamphetamine contamination is preventing vulnerable people on the social housing register from getting access to a home, as cleaning and remediation can take up to three months.”

“Certainly when it’s anything to do with drugs, there’s a great level of hysteria and judgement,” says Kearney, who is disappointed that the Ministry of Health has not clarified the nature of its guidelines.

“But it’s probably not anybody’s job to do it. And when it’s no one’s job, who’s going to risk standing up and talking about it?”

“There’s a chain of people following each other’s lead, all the way back to the Ministry of Health,” says Dr Kim. “If you trace it back to who could have intervened three or four years ago when it became clear that the testing was starting to occur on residential properties where just smoking might have happened, I would have thought someone at the Ministry of Health would have the initiative.”

He does not particularly blame the news media.

“I would have thought that somewhere within the Ministry of Health, as the host institution for the guidelines, if there was need for guidance from the media, it would have been a proactive role they could have stepped into, some time ago.”

We think the health and wellbeing risks of eviction from affordable housing are likely to be greater than the risks of living in a dwelling with residue from meth use.

From the Ministry of Health’s point of view, there was no need for such guidance. Public Health Engineer Paul Prendergast told Matters of Substance that the 2010 guidelines are “self-explanatory, and there are also industry training courses available recognised by NZQA to help with training and interpretation”.

He added that the Ministry has engaged an overseas-based toxicologist to review the guidelines and make any recommendations for changes if applicable. “The toxicologist has specifically been asked to address health risks posed by buildings contaminated by meth that occurred just from recreational smoking (as against manufacture).”

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC), which co-ordinates the efforts of several agencies under the Government’s Methamphetamine Action Plan, says any clarification is not its responsibility either.

“DPMC does not have a role in providing advice to other agencies. However, it does co-ordinate reporting across the agencies that work together to address the harm caused by methamphetamine, including contamination,” a spokesperson said.

“Other agencies have responsibility for implementing the Action Plan, and the Ministry of Health has responsibility where it relates to the guidelines.”

If the public panic has had any beneficial outcome, it is the impetus to actually get working on a formal standard for “methamphetamine-contaminated” properties. Development of a standard was signalled as a “new action” by DPMC in October 2015, but the work has clearly become more urgent in recent months.

Standards New Zealand has established a development committee to work on the new standard, but the fact that half of the panel’s 18 appointees represent methtesting, cleaning or lab verification businesses is problematic. New Zealand Drug Foundation Director Ross Bell has written to Standards New Zealand strongly protesting the presence of what he regards as vested interests on the committee.

The Property Investors Federation, which is also represented on the committee, has similar concerns. Andrew King says he believes some of the testing companies on the committee are simply interested in perpetuating what is, for them, a very profitable status quo.

In the meantime, says Dr Kim, “Housing New Zealand is taking seriously the opinion I’ve provided that 0.5 isn’t a level where you’d get concerned about the health risk. They’re interested in what might be done in the interim before the Standards New Zealand process comes to a conclusion.”

He has also been asked to address the committee and would like to see it adopt a higher guideline value.

“I wouldn’t go up to the number I’ve mentioned of 12.5, but I could imagine a number of 3.0 micrograms per 100 cm2” or six times the current guideline. He also hopes more attention will be paid to more straightforward means of remediation, such as cleaning and painting, rather than the radical and expensive solutions commonly applied at present. But, in the end, simple good sense will be required too.

“You look around and think why is this only happening in New Zealand? And you think, well, Australia wouldn’t be nutty enough to look. So you could say, well, let’s just stop looking, unless it’s actually got evidence of being a meth lab. That would be my ideal.”

Story and photos by Russell Brown, of publicaddress.net, Auckland.

 

Sidebar: Ministry of Health Guidelines

Guidelines for the Remediation of Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratory Sites was published by the Ministry of Health in August 2010, in response to the “growing problem” of clandestine meth labs – up from nine detected by Police in 2000 to 135 in 2009.

In addition to suggesting sampling and reporting practices, the guidelines aimed to suggest levels to which surface residues and air levels of the various chemical contaminants generated by meth labs should be reduced during remediation work.

This was not necessarily an easy task. A literature search found no comparable documents in Asia or Europe. There is no federal standard in the US, and clean-up levels in the 20 US states that specify them vary widely. The only related New Zealand standards are for soil contamination.

A variety of disclaimers emphasise that the guidelines “have no statutory effect and are of an advisory nature only” and that “users of this document should seek expert advice to determine if this guideline is applicable to their individual circumstances. The Ministry of Health and the author will not be held liable for any actual or potential economic or adverse effect(s) arising from the use of this information.”

The guideline level for meth residue itself was set at 0.5 micrograms per 100 square centimetres. This is a very low level. Take a single grain of salt, cut it into a thousand pieces and spread one of those pieces across an area the size of half an envelope. That’s the level.

But until quite shortly before publication, the guideline could have been three times higher, at 1.5 micrograms. That’s the level cited in the only risk-based standard available – in California. The California standard had been raised in 2010 after research found that the old level was unduly conservative.

The choice of the 0.5 guideline appears to have been influenced by one of the peer reviewers, Nicholas Powell of Auckland company Forensic and Industrial Science Ltd, but one of Powell’s principal reasons for favouring the lower level is not noted in the final document.

Correspondence obtained under the Official Information Act shows that a key reason for proposing the lower level was that meth was “a proxy for a range of potentially problematic contaminants generated as congeners or side-products”, which were more difficult to test for.

In other words, meth was treated as a proxy for the presence of other manufacturing chemicals – a rationale that could only apply where meth had been manufactured rather than simply used.

“I think hardly anyone seemed to get that,” says Dr Nick Kim of Massey University, one of the other peer reviewers of the guidelines.

“You might ask why there’s a guideline for iodine when, in other circumstances, it’s something you swab on your skin. That apparently doesn’t make sense, but it does make sense in the context of being used as a marker for other potential contamination. If you can clean methamphetamine and iodine down to those standards, you can be fairly sure that other things that might be present might also be cleaned down to below any level that could cause a health risk.”

Russell Brown
Journalist from Auckland who publishes publicaddress.net

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