Howls of indignation over state housing evictions based on spurious meth testing have masked the reality of New Zealand’s two-speed P standard.
Veronica Crichton admitted that she and her friends had been smoking meth in their Gate Pa, Tauranga home. She even got her landlord to help her evict one P-affected flatmate.
She and another woman had first moved into the Wellesley Grove house in September 2017 and meth tests at the time came up clear.
Crichton took over as the sole tenant six months later. By the time she left Wellesley Grove in August this year retesting revealed meth residues of up to 11.7 micrograms per square centimetre, well above the Standards New Zealand (NZS 8510) safety guideline of 1.5.
Photos of the garage where the highest reading was recorded showed it had been set up as a sleepout. The first flatmate told the Tenancy Tribunal she had suspected Crichton was using P, but that the garage was not being used as an extra room while she lived there. The tribunal accepted that the meth contamination had occurred during Crichton’s sole tenancy.
However the landlord’s claim of $2435 against his wayward tenant for testing and subsequent cleaning was thrown out. The tribunal ruled that the need for decontamination must be judged by the standard that applied at the time of the testing and clean-up.
This turned out to be a crucial point. The second round of testing at Wellesley Grove was done well after the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser Peter Gluckman released a report in May which said that exposure to a level below 15 micrograms was highly unlikely to affect people. There was also no evidence P had been cooked at the house, the tribunal said.
“Because of the large safety margins incorporated into NZS 8510, and the lack of evidence of actual harm from third-hand exposure to methamphetamine, I am not satisfied on the balance of probabilities that it is necessary to adopt the lower standard of 1.5 micrograms,” the adjudicator wrote in September.
The Crichton decision has set a significant precedent. Less than a month later, the adjudicator in the case of Fast Rental Ltd v Grimes and Nicholls declined the landlord’s claim for over $5000 in meth testing and clean-up costs at a Murrays Bay, Auckland house.
The Sunrise Avenue home had tested clean at the start of the tenancy in March 2017, but when the occupants left a reading of almost 4 micrograms was detected in the kitchen. Quoting Crichton, the adjudicator rejected the landlord’s claim saying they were “satisfied that the Gluckman report justifies the adoption of a higher level”.
The bombshell Gluckman report has left New Zealand operating a two-speed system for dealing with the after-effects of the pernicious drug. How much P in a house is too much now depends on who you are. While Housing New Zealand, the Tenancy Tribunal and real estate agents have adopted Gluckman’s 15 micrograms as a de facto safety standard, insurance companies and employers are stuck with the previous Standards New Zealand guideline of 1.5. Any review of the messy situation looks to be some time away, and meanwhile the property sector is left in limbo.
Housing Minister Phil Twyford swept into his new job in a blaze of political glory following Labour’s surprise win at the 2017 general election. He had been banging the drum in opposition for several years on the issue of meth testing – first from one side of the debate, and then from the other. While in 2014 he was haranguing his predecessor Nick Smith for selling state houses without testing them for meth contamination, by 2016 he had realised the political capital to be made in championing the plight of state housing tenants affected by deficient meth testing standards.
With the ink barely dry on his ministerial warrant Twyford commissioned outgoing Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser (PMCSA) Peter Gluckman to conduct a review of a meth testing standard many suspected was over-zealous.
Five short months later Housing New Zealand was on its knees apologising for evicting tenants from homes that had fallen foul of Standards New Zealand’s 1.5 microgram guideline.
For those who have not devoted their entire attention to the country’s meth testing debacle, here’s a potted history: Between 2010 and 2016 the only available standard was a Ministry of Health guideline for cleaning up after meth labs. It said a property had to be remediated down to 0.5 micrograms per 100cm² of meth residue before it could be declared safe. Because there was nothing else, this was inappropriately adopted as a measure for whether a property was P contaminated.
In 2016 ESR conducted a review and recommended a remediation standard of 1.5 for properties that had been contaminated by either meth manufacture or use. In June 2017 Standards New Zealand published standard NZS 8510 and adopted the ESR’s 1.5 level.
Then in May this year Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (PMCSA) set the cat well and truly among the pigeons. His review of the meth testing situation concluded that there is currently no evidence third-hand exposure to meth residues on household surfaces pose any health risk to humans. Exposure to levels below 15 micrograms “would be highly unlikely to have any adverse effects”, his report says.
While the headlines scream about vulnerable Kiwis put out on the street and subsequent efforts to compensate them, the resulting regulatory quagmire has attracted little attention.
Dr Jeff Fowles, a toxicologist with the California Department of Public Health, was the lead author on the ESR report. He was also asked to provide comments on the Gluckman report. In his view using Gluckman as a substitute standard is politically motivated.
He does not agree with its guideline of 15. While scientists often agree to differ, the office of the PMCSA seems to want unanimous consent, he says. Staff there have written to him to express their displeasure that he doesn’t support their finding.
The fundamental problem is that there is a dearth of research into the effects of third hand exposure to meth residue, Fowles says. The ESR number was an estimate based on the best data available, and some of that data was unimpressive. “We’re kind of trying to make the best of a bad thing.”
In Fowles’ view the Gluckman report is dismissive of these uncertainties, and he can’t understand its rationale in taking the 10-times less conservative approach of 15 micrograms as opposed to the ESR’s 1.5.
“In the end it was like, ‘on balance we looked at it, decided it was a little bit conservative, and we’re going to go with this, you could easily argue for this higher standard’.
“I didn’t really understand from the outset that this report was going to represent a de facto standard. I just thought this is a review and a perspective, which they’re entitled to.”
Gluckman may well turn out to be right, he says. “But it’s unusual for a government to decide ‘we’re going to go with the best case scenario and hope for the best’. It’s cavalier,” Fowles says.
The American toxicologist is not comfortable with some of the data the Gluckman report relies on. One of these pieces of research, a Colorado study that found the lowest dose of meth that could potentially cause an adverse effect in a 10kg child is 50 micrograms a day, was based on rats.
He also has concerns about not taking a zero-risk approach. “That’s the other step in the argument they’re not addressing.
“In that case, what is the percentage you’re deciding as a policy decision not to protect? How many kids are you deliberately deciding are acceptably exposed to levels that cause effect, and what is your ethical reasoning for that?”
The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment asked barrister Peter Castle to review Standards New Zealand’s process for establishing NZS 8510. His report released in August concludes that the standard was properly made.
Just after the PMCSA report came out, Gluckman wrote to Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Kris Faafoi taking a pop at the Standards New Zealand committee which had developed NZS 8510. It was half-made up of people from the meth testing and remediation industries and “for the most part it appears these industry representatives had no scientific background”, he wrote to the minister.
The letter prompted Castle to write an addendum to his report. Nine of the 21 committee members were industry representatives, and at least four of those people were scientifically qualified, he pointed out.
The government’s failure to conduct a proper review of the meth testing standard leaves property owners and landlords in an awkward position.
By the time NZS 8510 came out insurers were already receiving dozens of claims a month from homeowners for meth-related damage, Insurance Council operations manager Terry Jordan says. As a result they were changing their policies to increase excesses and cap cover, so took the opportunity to align them to the new standard.
To change it at this stage would be a massive undertaking involving numerous amendments to policy wording, advice to brokers, and staff training. “It’s like turning a gigantic ocean liner around,” Jordan says.
The industry is hoping it will be quicker to wait for a review of the standard than to alter their policies.
Jordan was on the Standards New Zealand committee which developed the 1.5 guideline. With what is known now he’s inclined to agree with Gluckman, but more work is sorely needed, he says.
“Until (then) insurers are stuck… and any losses that occur with contamination above 1.5, they will be honoured,” he says.
The meth testing and remediation sector is also shackled with the 1.5 level. The Methamphetamine Testing Industry Association wrote to Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Iain Lees-Galloway asking what standard its members should operate to in terms of kitting their staff out with personal protective equipment (PPE).
The advice from WorkSafe was that the standard has not changed since Gluckman, and it is the employers’ duty to ensure suitable PPE gear is worn, the minister replied.
“Essentially, if a (business owner) cannot ensure the safety of workers… because they are unsure of what PPE to use then they should not be doing the work,” Lees-Galloway wrote.
Meanwhile real estate agents are being held to a different standard.
The industry regulator, the Real Estate Authority, now bases its advice on Gluckman. Agents do not have to disclose meth test results below 15 micrograms to prospective buyers unless specifically asked, it says. They also don’t have to disclose when meth has been used at the property and it has been remediated to below 15, or if meth has been manufactured and it has been remediated to below 1.5.
The REA tells buyers that “a property that tests below 15 micrograms is considered safe to live in”, and warns that the meth testing industry is unregulated.
Property Investors Federation executive officer Andrew King was also on the Standards New Zealand committee and had his reservations at the time, he says. In his view the Gluckman report is a good thing because too many landlords were wasting money remediating supposedly P-infested houses that didn’t need fixing.
However the government must urgently get on with sorting out the resulting confusion, King says. Many of the federation’s members are not happy with Gluckman’s proposed replacement standard of 15. “They believe you’ve got a tenant in there that’s smoking meth and it’s damaging their property and they want them accountable.
“Our members are worried that even if 15 is safe, a lot of tenants, if it’s over 1.5, they don’t want to live in a property like that because they believe it’s unsafe.
“The PMCSA is saying we don’t need to test any more unless we think there’s manufacturing (of P going on). We want to know what we should be doing.”
Veteran landlord Ron Goodwin, owner of 40 properties across Auckland, Whangarei and the Waikato, is clear where he stands. “I’m sticking with 0.5.
“I don’t ever want to let a house again to a meth addict. They’ve cost me a lot of money.
“It’s not just the fact they smoke meth, they’re unbelievably irresponsible people in every other way. They just completely trash the house, because they’re out of their brains.”
Soon after 65-year-old Anne* moved into her rented Hamilton apartment strange people started banging on her door.
When two appliance store staff came to deliver her whiteware one of them told her his best friend used to live there, and that he had been with him when was murdered.
“I talked to him for a while, I could see he was upset. I said to him, ‘were there drugs in this house?’, and he said ‘yes’.”
Suspecting the worst, Anne had her new home tested for meth contamination. Even though she had cleaned it from top to bottom when she moved in because she suffers from asthma, the highest reading was a startling 130 micrograms – stratospherically above Gluckman’s recommended level of 15 and Standards New Zealand’s 1.5.
When the landlord came around he sheepishly produced his own test results, albeit at much lower levels than Anne’s. It turned out he was involved in the meth clean-up industry and had done some DIY testing prior to Anne moving in.
Anne’s health has deteriorated since she’s been in the apartment. She can’t prove the meth residue is to blame, but if she’d known there had been drug problems she would have never moved in.
She is currently filing a case against her landlord with the Tenancy Tribunal. With no family in Hamilton, she is sleeping with all the windows open while she packs and looks for somewhere else to live.
Miles Stratford, principal of MethSolutions which conducted Anne’s test, is less than impressed with Gluckman’s advice that “testing is only recommended where meth lab activity or very heavy use is suspected”.
Without more research into the effects of meth residue it’s reckless to say that testing isn’t required, he says. In his experience the leftovers of P abuse will exacerbate some pre-existing health conditions.
“Where people thought they’d had issues resolved or it’s well in the past, those things come to the fore again,” Stratford says.
A review of meth testing standards appears to be a long way off.
Interestingly Consumer Affairs Minister Kris Faafoi has ordered the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the PMCSA to set the parameters for developing policy options on better scientific input into setting New Zealand standards. This work is meant to “learn from the development and response to NZS 8510 and embed those lessons in the policy and processes for the development of future New Zealand Standards”, it says.
The office of the PMCSA says it wasn’t involved in developing the original standard because it it hadn’t been asked or specifically informed about it. If it had been, it would have looked at the standard earlier, it says. This explanation is hard to understand given the level of media attention the issue attracted, including this piece on The Spinoff.
Meanwhile Housing Minister Twyford won’t make any commitments on a review, other than pointing to the upcoming Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill which covers issues relating to liability for damage to rental properties, and will allow for regulations governing contaminants.
“The Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill (No 2) is awaiting its second reading in Parliament. Once it passes, it will enable the Minister to set regulations for meth contamination,” his office said in a statement.
“When the Bill passes, there will then be consultation on what that regulation should be. Because this work is dependent on the Bill being passed, it is not possible to give a firm timeline.”
Minister Faafoi’s work is about the setting of standards, which are different to regulations and is looking at standards more generally, Twyford’s office says.
In an email following publication of The Spinoff’s story, one of the Gluckman report authors Dr Anne Bardsley says she wrote to Jeff Fowles to clarify his views on its findings. She has not received a reply from him, she says.
Bardsley also says the report was never intended to be a de facto standard but has been adopted as such by some agencies.
*Name has been changed.