Investigators entered the Norcross home with gas masks and the same kind of chemical-resistant suits now used in treating and transporting Ebola victims.
They knew the danger wasn’t just in the crystal methamphetamine that they scooped with black salad ladles from plastic trays into Tupperware containers. The air ducts, sewage and floor boards could have absorbed toxic fumes from the orange barrels filled with a poisonous brew of battery acid, lye, toilet bowl cleaner and nail polish.
Today, the suburban home to a $44 million drug operation looks no different than its neighbors. While the owner decided to decontaminate the rental property, if he hadn’t cleaned it anyone who moved in might never have known of the lingering risks.
Georgia doesn’t require property owners to clean former drug dens or disclose the contamination to potential buyers or renters, even though many of the chemicals used in meth labs are highly toxic. Because remediation costs can range from $5,000 to $150,000, experts say many Georgia homes go untreated.
“Every once in a blue moon we’ll get a call for it,” said Brandon Ridley, president of Southern Bio-Recovery in Marietta.
Anyone could move into a contaminated home without knowing. While the federal government has a registry of former meth houses, it is outdated and incomplete, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
For instance, the Norcross residence on Newbury Road, where police seized nearly a half ton of meth in 2010, did not make the list. Neither did a Lorene Drive apartment in Marietta that Cobb County police busted in January 2011. The federal registry also missed the Lawrenceville home on La Maison Drive that was once called the “national epicenter” of the Mexican drug cartel known as La Familia.
Jack Killorin, director of the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, said the registry misses many former drug labs because the reporting by most local police agencies is voluntary.
“It’s not all conclusive by any means,” Killorin said.
Even after labs have ceased operating, the toxins can remain for years. Children get residue on their hands and in their mouths while crawling on floorboards and carpets. Vapors waft from drapes and travel through heating vents or air conditioning units.
Not much is known about the consequences of long-term exposure. But the chemicals used to make meth include toxins such as flesh-eating hydrochloric acid and rubber-melting toluene.
“Take for instance anhydrous ammonia,” said Nachman Brautbar, a toxicologist at the University of Southern California. “If it is released and inhaled, it can cause really bad diseases, starting with asthma all the way to lung fibrosis.”
Questions have been raised about whether long-term exposure to meth ingredients can increase the risk of birth defects, cancer and learning disabilities. Respiratory problems and kidney disease are often associated with the chemicals.
“You’re dealing essentially with a toxic waste site.” Killorin said. “We have houses that have asbestos; in this, we’re just adding a level of threatening toxicity.”
Removing meth materials is supposed to only be the beginning of the clean-up process. Since meth cooks often dump leftover liquids into kitchen sinks or backyard pits, the chemicals can seep into plumbing and walls. Proper cleaning requires an outside contractor and may mean tearing out dry wall or pulling up floorboards.
Homeowners insurance doesn’t cover the costs, leaving responsible owners to pay out of pocket.
In a July report, eight metro-Atlanta drug agencies listed meth as either an increasing threat or their greatest drug threat.
Mexican meth has swamped the market and conversion labs — where liquid meth is converted to a final, sell-able product — have become more popular, and tend to be more toxic than the typical shake-and-bake single pot labs.
“Actually, it’s the worst type,” said Joe Mazzuca, the operations manager of nationally-based Meth Lab Cleanup. “The chemical residue that comes out of that conversion cycle — there are high levels of contaminants in those areas.”
Until 2011, federal funds were available to help pay for removing the waste. Police agencies were able to bust more meth operations and hire contractors to remove the chemicals, on Uncle Sam’s dime.
Since then, when a drug site is discovered, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation pays for the removal of any active lab equipment.
After that work is done, it’s up to the property owner to hire another contractor to rid the home of the chemical residues.
“The cops move the meth lab tools, they do not decontaminate homes,” Mazzuca said. “Our job is to remove the chemicals and do the field chemistry.”
In 23 states, homeowners are required to meet government cleaning guidelines before selling or renting a meth-contaminated property. Federal standards for remediating meth labs, first published by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 and revised last year, were designed to outline necessary cleaning procedures.
If a property owner asks how to clean up a property in Georgia, the state Department of Natural Resources points them to the voluntary guidelines.
“In Georgia, there are really no rules or regulations that specifically cover clandestine laboratories,” said David Reuland, the head of the DNR’s Environmental Protection Division.
Disclosure not guaranteed
Almost two dozen states make owners disclose that their properties were used as meth labs. Some of those states, including Arkansas and Tennessee, compile their own lists of such properties, removing them once they are decontaminated.
Georgia lawmakers in the last decade haven’t introduced bills to track meth lab properties. While the reason isn’t clear, legislation requiring clean-up or disclosure could face opposition from property owners who might be saddled with the costs.
Georgia Association of Realtors President Linda Carol Porterfield told the AJC in an email that the statewide group was not pushing for legislation, adding, “We are not in a position to provide any feedback at this time.”
Realtors are bound by a code of ethics to disclose any details that could decrease a property’s value. The code does not address any specific depreciation issues — such as drug contamination — because “each transaction is unique and must be judged accordingly,” according to the association.
Not everyone with a real estate license abides by the code, though. And if the owner doesn’t volunteer the information, the Realtor might not know a property was formerly used to cook meth.
That leaves Georgians with only the online registry run by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
When federal money was available to remove meth labs, state agencies had to report each address to the registry. But that only included locations where active drug equipment was taken away, leaving out potentially contaminated properties with inactive labs. And once the funding disappeared, state police no longer had to contribute to the federal list.
The registry lists about 450 addresses of former meth labs in Georgia since 2004.
“One thing we’re noting is that there was a period when the federal funding dried up, there were gaps made in the reporting,” Atlanta HIDTA’s Killorin said. “Without funding to clean it up, people were ignoring meth labs.”
Travis Bailey, the Norcross landlord, says he plans to disclose his home’s sullied past to its next renters, even though the property was properly cleaned. He wishes Georgia had some cleaning and disclosure requirements.
“I would love to have better guidelines under this situation because it seems so uncertain,” Bailey said. “At least (in other states), the rules are clear.”
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