Fresh start turns toxic

Dream house that used to be a meth lab causes health problems and financial woes

Tricia Petrosene outside her dream home-turned-nightmare.

Tricia Petrosene outside her dream home-turned-nightmare.

Photo by Larry Dalton

When kitchen designer Tricia Petrosene’s seven-year romantic relationship ended, she decided to make a fresh start in a new area. She had no inkling that the decision would compromise both her physical and fiscal health.

Petrosene’s employer of five years, Home Depot, was opening a new store in Yuba City and it would be easy for her to transfer.

In a neighborhood of older homes beginning to undergo gentrification, Petrosene was thrilled to find a 50-year-old white Tudor cottage. Sure, it needed a lot of fixing up, but the price was right. She could walk her dogs nearby in two parks or along the river. Several of her new neighbors were also single women, refurbishing old houses.

“I fell in love with this house,” Petrosene says, sitting in a living room filled with antique furniture and ceramic curios. “It had a lot of charm.”

Three months after moving in, Petrosene started feeling unusually tired with flu-like symptoms and burning eyes. She had trouble breathing and began using an inhaler. “I’d come home from work and go to bed.”

Debilitating migraine headaches caused her to repeatedly miss work, but her supervisors are supportive. Since moving into the house over a year ago, she has refilled her migraine prescription 20 times and her weight has dropped by 50 pounds.

“I wasn’t dieting. I just didn’t feel like eating,” she said. “I have half the energy I had when I moved in here and I can’t sleep.”

As she became acquainted with her neighbors, they informed her that the previous tenants had been arrested for dealing drugs and manufacturing methamphetamines. Two neighbors volunteered to speak to the Sacramento News & Review on condition of anonymity.

Citing “a large crowd of unsavory people” and regular visits by the police responding to complaints, one neighbor overheard conversations in the garage she “did not want to hear. I knew the selling of drugs was going on.” Another neighbor noted “all kinds of people in and out of there all hours of the night.”

Suddenly the makeshift smokestack hanging from the roof in the detached garage made sense. And Petrosene wondered if that reddish-brown resin on the concrete floor could be residue from manufacturing methamphetamine.

Unlike LSD and Ecstasy, which require advanced training in chemistry, making methamphetamine is not difficult or expensive. and Barnes & Noble sell instructional books describing several different methods. A variety of chemicals may be involved including explosives, solvents, metals, salts and corrosives. Many of these substances are toxic and some highly flammable.

Every pound of meth that is manufactured generates five pounds of hazardous waste. Six to seven labs are busted every day in California, according to Don Plain, chief of emergency response for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. One lab was busted in Yuba County in 1995. In 2000, there were 42.

Although California produces between 80 and 90 percent of the nation’s methamphetamine, according to some official estimates, it lags far behind other states in having standardized protocol for cleanup and testing of clandestine lab sites.

Toxicity studies indicate chemicals used to produce meth can cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive problems and brain, liver and kidney damage. Many states, but not California, require notice on property title for former labs.

According to a fact sheet published by the Washington State Department of Health, little is known “about the chronic health effects from these labs.” Houses used as illegal drug laboratories should not be occupied “until the property has been decontaminated” but “no decontamination procedure can guarantee absolute safety for reoccupancy.”

Contamination can affect soil and groundwater and is found in floor coverings, counters, walls and ventilation systems. Typical symptoms of toxicity include headaches, nausea, dizziness, burns and skin and eye irritation.

The Kansas Department of Health has recorded cases of lingering health problems in children and adults living in houses that were formerly clandestine labs. Though little research exists about effects of long-term exposure, many agents from the DEA are now suffering serious health problems resulting from chemicals encountered when busting these laboratories.

Several months after Petrosene purchased the house, chunks of sheetrock began falling out or separating from the walls in her bedroom and the adjoining bath. Markings Petrosene describes as “witchcraft symbols”—a “666,” a pentagram and other signs—have begun to bleed through the paint that was applied at the time of sale. Plasterboard underneath is discolored in spots with a rusty brown, the characteristic color of methamphetamine manufacturing residue, according to Plain.

Nancy Smith of Action Home Sales, the real estate agent representing Petrosene in the transaction, said she had no knowledge that the house was once a meth lab. Nor did Cheyenne Reese, the listing agent, or Jerry McCrory, owner of both McCrory Real Estate and the property management company that evicted the former tenants for non-payment of rent.

Bill Olson of NET 5, the Narcotics Enforcement Team for Yuba and Sutter counties, the law enforcement agency that made the bust, says his agency routinely sends letters to the property owner, notifying them that their property was used as a clandestine lab.

“Our only obligation is to notify the county. We track down the property owner as a courtesy,” he said. Referring to the bust at Petrosene’s house, he said, “That was a pretty substantial case.”

According to the police report, three people were arrested and lab equipment, chemicals, a loaded firearm and finished methamphetamine were seized. Although it was what Olson calls a “user laboratory, producing no more than a few grams,” he points out that the lab could have been in production for several years. During that time, hazardous waste could have been continuously dumped on the property.

“I know of cases where the contamination has been so bad, rather than clean it up, an owner will walk away from it.” Cleanup costs can be high and they would “never get their money out of it.”

“We do so many meth labs,” Olson said, “a lot of them at these rental houses. [Yuba and Sutter] counties are inundated with users. Last year, we did 63 labs.”

NET 5 investigators are lab-safety certified by Cal-OSHA and wear protective suits and breathing apparatus as they seize evidence and do what Olson calls “a gross cleaning.”

Next, the Department of Toxic Substances Control is called and they contract with a hazardous waste disposal company to remove lab equipment and chemicals. Residual contamination is then the responsibility of the property owner, says Olson. He confirms what Petrosene had heard—a lab was indeed located in her bedroom.

A law that went into effect January 1, 2002, obligates Petrosene to disclose that her home was a former meth lab if she were to sell it, even though she was never informed by realtors.

Assistant General Counsel Gov Hutchinson with the California Association of Realtors said material facts that would affect the buyer’s decision to purchase must always be disclosed. “If the seller knew, I would argue they need to disclose … anything about the property a buyer would want to know.”

Hutchinson argues that if the previous property owner knew and didn’t disclose that the property had housed a meth lab, they are liable for injuries resulting from contamination. Since none of the realtors involved profess to know that the house was a clandestine lab, proper cleaning procedures for residual chemicals were not done.

Buying the house in good faith and believing what she read in the inspection reports, Petrosene was unprepared for additional expenses of remediating hidden damages and the costs of testing for contaminants. For Petrosene, now saddled with a house she feels she can’t sell, with crumbling walls and undetermined contamination, her “fresh start” has been anything but.