MISSOULA, Mont. — We’ve told you how widespread the meth crisis has become in Montana. But what if we told you it could be closer than you might think, like maybe even in your own walls?
“I'm testing 10 properties a week,” Meth abatement specialist Lee Yelin told us. Testing and cleaning properties for meth was just 1 percent of his business 14 years ago. Now, it’s over 50 percent.
We spent 30 minutes with Yelin Thursday, and in that time he had six phone calls from people asking about meth testing and cleaning. Now, a new industry is calling him for help.
“I have worked for a few private parties that are trying to buy rentals. And we'll go through five or six, seven, eight, nine properties before we find one that's not contaminated,” Yelin said. “It's sad. It's sad.”
The real estate and rental markets are just the latest to show the symptoms of our state’s meth crisis. You could be living in a contaminated home and not even realize it.
“In a lot of cases it can be higher from smoking than from the actual lab,” Yelin said. “The three labs I cleaned were lower than several of the homes I’ve cleaned where there's concentrated use. The smoking of it is much like smoking tobacco. It follows air currents, so if you have a cold-air return, which sucks in cold air for your furnace, that's where it goes. Then it gets into the furnace and distributed throughout the whole building.”
It’s causing unknowing neighbors and tenants in rental complexes to get sick. It’s especially dangerous for young children who crawl on the floor and put their hands in their mouths, causing them to ingest the toxic residue, which has led to several lawsuits.
“We have cases in Ravalli County and Helena where children were impacted and started having convulsions, respiratory issues, and we don’t know what the long-term effects are,” Yelin said.
Realtors, landlords and renters are taking notice. Craig Best was about to close on a rental property last year, when his realtor recommended a meth test.
“I advise my clients that it's an issue, and you should consider a test, regardless of what property you're purchasing,” realtor and landlord Kris Hawkins said. “But there's definitely that gut feeling you get when you walk into a property and you get an idea if you need a test or not.”
She took Best into a property he planned to rent and list as a vacation rental. They found meth paraphernalia in one unit, deadbolts on interior doors and blacked-out windows.
“It was a shocking, eye-opening experience,” Best said. “I never was aware of the situation, that it could be so serious and so costly to clean up. It's definitely something you need to be aware of.”
You can find an entire list of meth contaminated properties on the Montana Department of Environmental Quality website, but counties are only required to report meth labs, not homes where meth has been used. So your home could be contaminated by a past resident, and there’s no way to know without a test, which will cost you.
“Every buyer is different, and every buyer makes different decisions,” says Mike Nugent, who’s a managing broker for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices. “So some of them will say, 'What does a meth test cost?' We say, you know, each swab is, say, $50 and you should do five or six on a house. They say, 'Well, I'm not concerned about it. We're not going to pay $300.' And then what do you do?” Nugent asked.
But cleanup costs more. Lawyer Jesse Kodadek says those initial tests could have saved many of his clients tens of thousands of dollars in cleanup and litigation.
“I think if people are paying for home inspections they should also pay for meth inspections,” Kodadek says.
The tests start around $50 but can add up if you’re testing multiple spots in a home. There are instant tests that give you a basic “yes” or “no” to presence, and more detailed tests that are sent off to a lab for specific levels.
Yelin predicts more than 50 percent of Missoula’s rentals are contaminated. He says he gets the most calls from Kalispell and Great Falls.
“I just did a 12-plex for a real estate agent in Missoula that was buying a property in Great Falls,” Yelin said. “Every one of the units was contaminated. Every single one.”
It’s not just rentals. This is another reminder that meth use crosses all demographics.
“It used to be in the demographics of more low income,” Yelin said. “But now we are seeing it in $500,000 homes, $1 million dollar homes. Here's the big problem with methamphetamine. If there was a bust or use in a house back in the very beginning of the law in 2005 and nobody tested it, the level is exactly the same today as it was in 2005. It doesn't dissipate.”
So let’s say you do buy a contaminated home or rental property. Then what?
“That's my worst nightmare,” Hawkins said. “I don't know. I mean, I haven't had the conversation with my insurance provider yet to see, is that covered?”
“If you buy a meth-contaminated property, unless you can show that somebody knew about that and still sold it to you, you have very little recourse,” Kodadek said.
Meth contamination is also showing up in used cars. Yelin says it’s nearly impossible to clean cars because they’re so porous. If the contamination reached your cabin air filter, it could be unhealthy.
For now, Yelin’s phone continues to ring with more and more Montanans needing help cleaning up the residuals from this toxic and deadly problem.
We’re breaking this problem down even more Friday night. We’ll tell you what some people call deficiencies in Montana’s laws and some proposed fixes. But it’s more complicated than you might think.
We started bringing you in-depth stories on the methamphetamine crisis this time last year. It seems we’re never short on material. If you’ve been affected by the meth epidemic, either directly or indirectly, we would love to hear from you. You can email Maritsa Georgiou at email@example.com or reach out to her on Facebook or Twitter.