MEMPHIS, TN - A tall man and a slender woman wiggled into their white hazardous materials suits, putting on protective masks and gloves before venturing into the dark, two-story home where police say a methamphetamine lab recently exploded.
Gary Siebenschuh and a helper used a yellow photo ionization detector to measure for meth residue, maneuvering around debris and a hole in the roof caused by the Nov. 6 fire that injured a young child. They took wipe samples of walls, ducts, window sills and other parts of the home, later sending them to a lab to be analyzed.
"The process is extremely cumbersome but I think it's necessary," said Dick Cochran, owner of the Memphis home where a renter was charged with making meth and causing the fire and explosion. He hired Siebenschuh to inspect the property.
"You don't know how bad a house can be contaminated," Cochran said.
Tens of thousands of houses have been used as meth labs the last decade and a cottage industry is developing around cleaning them up. Many Americans are more aware of the production of the highly addictive drug thanks to AMC's hit show "Breaking Bad," which featured a high school chemistry teacher who turned into a meth cooker and dealer. In real life, cleanup contractors are the ones who deal with a property when a batch explodes or police raid an operation and shut it down.
However, there is little oversight of the growing industry in most states, opening the door for potential malfeasance. And some homeowners are often reluctant to pay thousands of dollars to make a property safe, so many houses simply don't get cleaned for years, exposing residents and sometimes even neighbors to harmful chemicals.
Cochran expects to spend thousands to make the house rentable once again, with much of the cost covered by his insurance company. However, that is not the norm; Many insurance policies do not cover meth cleanup.
To make a meth home safe, a certified contractor must remove and replace all contaminated materials, from walls to carpet to air conditioning vents. Next, a certified "industrial hygienist" tests the home to gauge whether it can be lived in or needs more cleaning.
Hygienists and contractors find homes in different states of disrepair. Homes with no fires or explosions are easier to clean, but there is often a pungent odor, contaminated cooktops, carpets and walls, leaky roofs and dirty furniture. In the case of Cochran's home, Siebenschuh had to maneuver around scattered debris and a burned-out shell of a second floor and attic.
"You do testing in the front end, so we can find out how much meth is there," said Siebenschuh, whose company, G7 Environmental Services, also does testing for asbestos, mold and other contaminates. "Then the homeowner hires a contractor, and then he cleans it up."
Despite laws requiring landlords to disclose if meth had been made on a property, experts say such disclosures often don't happen and there are many people living in contaminated homes nationwide.
Exposure to meth residue can cause respiratory problems, and health officials say meth homes pose a threat to public safety. For example, squatters may enter abandoned homes, and children play around them.
Over the last decade, tens of thousands of homes have been used to cook meth, according to federal data. About 25 states have laws related to meth cleanup. Some states, such as Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, place meth homes on quarantine lists. Some properties on Tennessee's list date to 2006, underscoring the years it often takes for some properties to be cleaned. Cleanup costs can range from $3,000 to $25,000, depending on the home's size and the amount of contamination.
Joe Mazzuca, CEO of operations for Meth Lab Cleanup LLC, said his business has been growing 30 percent annually in recent years.
"We consider it to be still in its infancy," said Mazzuca, a leader in the meth cleanup industry.
Many independent contractors, such as Don Horne, do meth cleanup as a second job to make extra money. Horne is a law enforcement officer in a small Arkansas town who also does pressure washing and cleaning of commercial kitchen exhausts. Other contractors work full-time in construction or demolition, for example; one contractor in Tennessee is a lawyer.
Horne says in many areas contaminated homes have become "a huge problem."
"You're helping the community by going in and cleaning up the properties, putting them back on the market to sell or to rent," said Horne, certified to clean meth labs in Arkansas and Tennessee. His company, American Bio Clean, has been hired by Cochran to clean up his home.
Horne notes that contractors who offer very low bids may be cutting corners.
One Tennessee hygienist faces federal fraud charges for contracting with home owners to clean up their properties, then illegally certifying that the homes were safe to live in despite not being properly cleaned. Douglas McCasland has pleaded not guilty, and faces trial in June.
"Once a property is busted
and quarantined, I'm not really aware of anyone that goes by and checks it," said Horne.
With a small staff, Tennessee's meth remediation department acknowledges it does not have the manpower to closely oversee contractors.
Dan Hawkins, head of the state's meth remediation office in Knoxville, says the division received federal funding to operate the website and has about three full-time employees. The state is looking at training more people to oversee and evaluate cleanup jobs.
"We are aware that contractors may run the entire scope, from very good to terrible, and we are evaluating," he said.
A number of quarantined homes end up in foreclosure, putting the burden of cleanup on the bank that takes possession, or taxpayer-owned home lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which also take possession of thousands of properties each year. Contractors say often these institutions are slow to pay for cleanup, especially if the property isn't in a good neighborhood where it might sell quickly.
"I've been by a few and they're just boarded up," Cochran's wife, Nancy, said of several houses in the Memphis area. "Evidently no one has the money to clean them up."