Methamphetamine contaminated homes - a health risk?
Methamphetamine or ‘ice’ is manufactured in illegal laboratories by ‘backyard chemists’, using different recipes based on the chemical ingredients available.
Stories about ‘backyard’ methamphetamine labs regularly appear in the media, presenting a hypothetical suburban nightmare: you’re living next door to a drug house!1 Or worse: your home is a former ice lab!2
These stories increase anxieties about homes where methamphetamine-related activity may have occurred.
Are they contaminated? Do they pose a health risk? Should they be tested? Does the area need to be decontaminated?
The facts about homes exposed to methamphetamine
A residential property could be exposed to methamphetamine by people who use, or manufacture, the drug there.
Methamphetamine contamination is not considered a health risk in homes where people have simply used methamphetamine. This is despite media reports that suggest otherwise. The emergence of specialised cleaning companies to meet consumer demand is driven by fear of impacts, even though there is often little or no risk.7,8
While methamphetamine may build up on the surfaces of a home where ice is smoked, such as benches and curtains, the residue is not concentrated enough to harm future residents.3
Like a house where cigarettes or cannabis have been previously smoked, a home in which people have smoked methamphetamine does not pose any risk, and does not require decontamination to make it safe to live in.
The situation, however, is different in residential properties used as methamphetamine labs.
In these homes, the residue left after methamphetamine manufacture may be concentrated enough to be a health risk.4
Homes with high concentrations of methamphetamine are also likely to contain other potentially toxic substances that may also be risky for human health.
When should a house be tested?
Testing for contamination is only required when a property is confirmed or suspected to have been used for methamphetamine manufacture.
Testing usually involves wiping surfaces to collect particles, then testing for methamphetamine in a professional laboratory. Wipes may work well on hard surfaces (e.g., metal) but may not be as effective on porous surfaces (e.g., wood) or soft furnishings (e.g., curtains).4
There is no scientific evidence about what is a ‘safe’ level of methamphetamine residue in buildings used to manufacture methamphetamine, so authorities can only try to estimate what levels pose no health risks.
In Australia, our ‘safe estimate’ is a reading of 0.00000005 grams per square metre of surface area5. Scientists think that levels at a property where methamphetamine was manufactured would be at least 60 times higher than this.6
Why does it matter if tests are too conservative?
The lack of clear, credible information regarding methamphetamine contamination in residential properties allows myths to thrive and can have significant related costs.
Tests conducted where there is no evidence that manufacturing occurred can result in substantial unnecessary – and expensive - remediation action. This can include removing all potentially contaminated porous materials, such as furnishings and carpets, and claning all surfaces.4
Along with the direct costs of testing and decontamination, stigma and discrimination can be associated with owning or living in a property identified as ‘contaminated’.
This was shown in New Zealand in 2017/18 when authorities took a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to methamphetamine and tested the homes of hundreds of public housing tenants. Many were evicted, forced to abandon supposedly contaminated belongings, and held liable for costs including emergency housing, moving, replacement furniture and bond for a new tenancy.9
Authorities later acknowledged that they caused significant harm to vulnerable people by mistakenly applying policies for dealing with methamphetamine laboratories to residential homes.10
What should I do if I think a property needs testing?
Testing of homes should only occur after consultation with a local government Environmental Health Officer who will strictly follow national safety guidelines to help you have your home assessed.
If manufacturing is confirmed, the assessment may lead to decontamination, however, this will be determined case by case.