The Republic, Columbus, IN by Chris Schilling  

[ View Original Article ]

Invisible Danger

BY Chris Schilling

Bobbie Fellerman could hardly believe what she was hearing over the telephone.

A meth lab had been discovered at a rental property she owned near Grammer.

Police had arrested a man at the southeastern Bartholomew County residence who they said was in the midst of cooking the drug when they arrived.

It made no sense to Fellerman — she had leased the home to a woman with young children.

But when she went to investigate after the drug bust in November 2010, she found out more than merely what had happened at the house.

She also began to learn about the lengthy process and thousands of dollars required of property owners to scrub their homes of residual chemicals left behind by the methamphetamine manufacturing process.

“The shock of it was more than anybody would imagine,” Fellerman said. “It made me mad at first because that was a nice house. I felt like I was violated because that was my house. It made me angry because it wasn’t their house to do that in.”

The dangerous consequences of meth labs don’t end when authorities break them up.

For property owners, the discovery of drug manufacturing triggers months of testing, cleaning and stripping the home of everything from the carpets to the cabinets, depending on the size of the lab.

In Bartholomew County, six of the 57 meth labs uncovered by authorities in 2011 were inside residential structures — five homes and a hotel room.

When authorities seize a meth lab inside an inhabitable structure — usually rental homes in Bartholomew County — they remove chemicals and drugmaking equipment.

But the residual contamination that often remains can cause health problems, according to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

The local health department posts a placard at contaminated properties to notify the public when a meth lab is discovered, said Scott Strietelmeier, environmental health specialist with the Bartholomew County Health Department.

The property owner also is notified that the house must be decontaminated before it can be occupied again.

Strietelmeier said the health department does not do any testing or cleaning but provides property owners with a list of certified cleaning companies that can do the work.

The costs of testing and cleaning can run into the thousands.

Donetta Held, president of Crisis Cleaning Inc., an Indiana-based company that is certified by the state to inspect houses and clean up chemical residue left from meth labs, said the company charges $3 to $4 per square foot to decontaminate a house.

A typical three-bedroom house can cost $4,000 to $6,000 to clean, she said.

The process begins when inspectors swab surfaces for chemical residue and send the samples to a lab to determine how much poison is present in the residence.

If the level of toxins is lower than the state’s safety threshold, the house can be certified as inhabitable without decontamination.

If, however, the results show levels above the state’s safety threshold, the house must be cleaned with chemicals that neutralize the meth residue.

Decontamination can involve nearly gutting a house of anything that has residue on it.

Brad Grayson, who operates Grayson Property Management, said he spent more than $40,000 to get a rental home he owns certified after authorities found a meth lab in July 2010.

He hired Crisis Cleaning to decontaminate the house with its chemical spray.

But the residue clung to some items, requiring them to be removed before the house could be certified and occupied again.

Grayson said he stripped out countertops, cabinets, a furnace, air conditioner, ductwork, light fixtures, ceiling fans, doors and wallpaper before tests finally showed the contamination had been reduced to safe levels.

A meth lab’s residue is invisible, and the chemical smell can dissipate over time, making it difficult for property owners to know their properties are contaminated.

“I couldn’t even figure out where the lab was. It just looked like a house that people were living in,” Grayson said. “You walk into this house and it looks perfectly fine, but there’s this invisible danger. You don’t know it’s there.”

Authorities said the small number of meth labs found indoors last year reflects a move by the drug community to shift the meth-making process to more secluded spots.

Strietelmeier said meth labs in detached garages and sheds — where they are sometimes found — do not require the property owner to have the structures decontaminated and certified because they are not inhabited residences like homes and hotel rooms.

Maj. Todd Noblitt, chief deputy in the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department, said investigators continue to find “rolling” meth labs inside vehicles and are discovering drug labs in wooded areas and near rivers and creeks.

“What they’re doing is going out in the woods where there are less people, less chance of being caught, less chance of the smell,” Noblitt said.

But meth cooks still make the drugs inside homes, such as the rental house Fellerman owns where her tenant’s boyfriend was cooking the drug.

Fellerman said she treated the challenge of getting the home inspected, tested, cleaned and certified as a learning experience, one she hopes will help her identify problems at her rentals in the future.

“I’m glad I did go through it,” she said. “Now I know what to look for.”