Steve Meyer Discusses the Silent Hazard at Abandoned Properties
The April issue of Servicing Management featured an article authored by Steve Meyer, Safeguard’s AVP of high risk and hazard claims, titled The Silent Hazard At Abandoned Properties.
The Silent Hazard At Abandoned Properties
How field services companies identify and remediate damage caused by “meth labs.”
The AMC television show “Breaking Bad” brought to light an increasing problem in the U.S. Although fictional, the show featured a story line that is all too familiar in today’s world. The main character, Walter White, is faced with stage III lung cancer and has to figure out a way to support his wife and teenage son, who has cerebral palsy. He decides to use his background as a chemistry teacher to partner with an ex-student and begin manufacturing the illegal drug crystal meth, or methamphetamine.
The television show had a popular run from 2008 to 2013. It opened people’s eyes to
another world where desperate people sometimes take desperate measures to
ensure a stable life. But it also begs the question of how many Americans are like
Walter White – with only one medical diagnosis, unemployment or other catastrophic
event away from taking extreme measures to keep their lives and their families afloat.
And for those like Walter, when they do turn to those extreme measures like
manufacturing crystal meth in their homes, what damage or hazards do they leave
behind? Field services companies see first-hand the damage of crystal meth
manufacturing in properties in many neighborhoods across the country.
An increasing problem
The mortgage servicing industry has seen an increase in the past five to six years of abandoned and foreclosed homes that once housed meth laboratories, or “meth labs.” In fact, the number of properties we have reported as being contaminated from crystal meth has increased approximately 30% over the past two to three years.
The challenge is that it is difficult to identify an abandoned or vacant property that was once used to manufacture meth. It can happen in any neighborhood, town or city in the country. Whether it be the previous homeowners trying any means to keep their home – and taking desperate measures as Walter White did – or squatters entering a vacant property and manufacturing the hazardous drug, field services companies must keep their inspector and contractor networks safe, protect the integrity of the property for their mortgage servicing clients, and follow state regulations when remediating the damage.
Identifying a former meth lab
Crystal meth is a restricted or illegal drug that is colorless and odorless. According
to Medical News Today, the substance is abused because it has a long-lasting euphoric
effect on the user. There are hundreds of “recipes” on how to produce the drug, but it
can be as simple as using an over-the-counter medication containing
pseudoephedrine, household chemicals and a plastic bottle.
A meth lab is an illicit operation that contains the supplies and chemicals used to
produce the drug. They are increasingly prevalent throughout the U.S., according to
the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), a component of the U.S. Department
of Justice. In 2012, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that
more than 11,200 labs were seized in 49 states.
A large number of properties that house meth labs end up in foreclosure – and that
number continues to increase in neighborhoods across the country. In the past six
months, our contractors cleaned up approximately 925 properties that had been
contaminated with the chemicals found in crystal meth. Of those properties, roughly
218 were bank owned (REO) or post-foreclosure sale, while 707 were not REO.
Field service inspectors and contractors have to be educated on identifying vacant or abandoned properties that were used as meth labs. Some of the common signs given by the NDIC and the DEA include the following:
- Unusual odors such as rotten eggs, cat urine, nail polish remover, and ammonia
or the other chemicals used to make crystal meth;
- Unusually large amounts of cold medicine containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine;
- Jars containing a clear liquid with white or red residue on the bottom;
- Glass cookware or frying pans with a powdery residue;
- Propane tanks with blue fittings;
- Metallic ribbon stored in oil or kerosene;
- Excessive amounts of debris or trash, especially chemical containers, coffee
filters or pieces of cloth that are stained red, and duct tape rolls;
- Windows covered with aluminum foil or blackened in some way;
- Evidence of chemical waste or dumping; and
- Extensive security measures such as “No Trespassing” signs or fences.
Once a vacant or abandoned home has been determined to be a former meth lab by
either the field services vendor, or often by law enforcement, servicers will be alerted,
and the appropriate measures can be taken to reduce damages and potential hazards.
Hazards of meth labs
Field services companies must be sure their contractors are taking precautions when
entering any vacant home that has the potential for having been contaminated by the
manufacture of crystal meth. The NDIC reports that the greatest risks are the
exposure to hazardous chemicals and the potential for fire or explosion due to the
volatility of the chemicals. Chemicals in the process – like Freon, ammonia, lithium
metal, hydriodic acid and iodine crystals – can cause severe respiratory problems if
inhaled. More specifically, exposure to these chemicals can cause dizziness, nausea,
disorientation, a lack of coordination, excess fluid in the lungs, severe chemical burns
and damage to internal organs.
Other chemicals, such as acetone, red phosphorus and hypophosphorous acid, are
extremely flammable and can cause an explosion at the property, posing a risk to
people and homes in close proximity.
The best way to remediate the damage caused by meth labs is for field services
companies to employ specially licensed or credentialed contractors as required by
State laws and regulations
When field services companies are dealing with a property contaminated by the presence of a meth lab, there are no national standards or guidelines on how to access and clean up the potential hazards; however, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released voluntary guidelines in 2007 based on the best-available scientific
knowledge. The EPA’s recommended guidelines include the following:
- Secure the property to prevent unauthorized entry;
- Hire a contractor to conduct remediation, sampling and air monitoring;
- Ventilate the property;
- Perform preliminary assessment and sampling;
- Remove contaminated materials;
- Vacuum hard surfaces, including walls and floors;
- Wash the walls;
- Clean and seal the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system; and
- Conduct post-remediation sampling.
Additionally, 25 states have established their own regulations for remediating meth labs
and have their own set of licensing requirements. For example, Washington has a strict
program requiring that contractors complete an application form, take the 40-hour
training class and enroll in a two-day licensing course. This must be renewed every two
Indiana requires that inspectors receive a special qualification by accumulating
40 hours of experience cleaning illegal drug labs, receive eight hours of training for
supervisors, pass an exam on illegal drug cleanup with a score of 80% or better
and maintain applicable insurance – professional liability and errors and omissions
in the amount of $1 million, and pollution prevention in the amount of $3 million.
To keep up with these unique requirements, field services companies including ours
have a dedicated internal office staff and network of licensed contractors who are
familiar with each of the states’ laws.
Remediating a meth lab
When it is determined that a vacant property once housed a meth lab, a field services
company will typically flag the property or loan to ensure that no one enters the
property unless he or she is completing the remediation and is properly licensed. Then
those licensed contractors perform a pre-assessment by testing to determine the level
of contamination. Samples are taken of housing materials and the air quality within the
Most states have determined “safe” levels of meth residuals. For example, California
and Ohio established 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters as the health-based
remediation standard. It can vary greatly in other states.
Once testing is complete, licensed contractors create a plan for remediation. They must
wear protective equipment depending on the level of contamination. This often includes
a respirator; a chemical-protective suit; gloves; and chemical-resistant, steel-toe boots,
according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Cleanup usually consists of a triplewash/triple-rinse process. Testing and sampling is
done after each wash until the contamination levels are within the acceptable standards
established by the state where the property is located. Cleaning products such as
Crystal Clean and Simple Green are what our contractors prefer to use during
remediation. It is rare that the company’s contractors have to tear out building materials
or recommend demolition, but it can happen.
Typical costs for assessment and remediation of a meth lab at a vacant property can
vary between $2,500 and $30,000 depending on the level of contamination. Our costs
have averaged between $10,000 and $20,000 per property. These costs may be
covered by insurance.
The show “Breaking Bad” highlighted the growing issue of meth labs that mortgage
servicers and field services companies face every day. Inspectors and contractors
working for field services companies can be subjected to serious health and other
hazards when they discover a meth lab at a vacant property. And it can happen
It is important that field services companies protect not only the properties they service
for their clients, but the boots-on-the-ground vendors performing the work.
By following requirements established by state governments, these companies can
clean up the mess left behind by the Walter Whites of the world.
Steve Meyer is assistant vice president of high risk and hazard claims at Safeguard
Properties. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please click here to view the article as a PDF.
Safeguard Properties is the largest mortgage field services company in the U.S. Founded in 1990 by Robert Klein and based in Valley View, Ohio, the company inspects and maintains defaulted and foreclosed properties for mortgage servicers, lenders, and other financial institutions. Safeguard employs approximately 1,700 people, in addition to a network of thousands of contractors nationally. Website: www.safeguardproperties.com.