Real concern about the contamination of properties used as meth labs led to hysteria over properties where the drug may have been used. Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Who is to blame for the meth test mess? A property manager’s perspective

David Faulkner was once such a meth-contamination believer he became a Methsolutions Certified Sampler. But then he saw the hysteria, and the industry that profited from it, for what they are

In August of 2014 two-year-old Emma Lita-Bourne died after suffering a brain haemorrhage. The story made the news the following winter after a coroner reported that the condition of the property had contributed to the little girl’s death. The property was contaminated and it wasn’t methamphetamine.

Instead dampness and mould had played a significant contributing factor into the death of young Emma, said the coroner. It was a story that highlighted the sorry state of many rental properties around New Zealand and, in particular, Housing New Zealand.

If that wasn’t bad enough, last year a BRANZ report was released stating that up to 1,600 deaths a year could be attributed to the poor condition of New Zealand housing.

Yet somehow, the poor condition of New Zealand’s rental stock has not been the focus that it should have been. Instead, New Zealanders have been gripped by the fear of owning or living in a meth contaminated property. It has now become clear that this country has potentially wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on what appears to be nothing more than fake news and, in some cases, scaremongering that has led us to this moral panic.

Housing New Zealand has spent approximately $100 million on testing and decontamination work. What has the private sector spent? Probably about the same. Yet no one anywhere can name an individual who has died because they have been exposed to one of these properties.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve completely confused our priorities.

I have seen the methamphetamine testing and cleaning industry evolve from its early days at the start of the decade all the way up to its zenith. I also have to confess that in the early days of the industry, even I was sucked into it, becoming a “Methsolutions Certified Sampler”, whatever credibility that qualification had.

I even appeared on the front page of the Manawatu Standard back in November 2013 stating that properties will need to be proven to be “meth free” before being rented out.

However, as the problem grew, after a while, I started to question myself. Is all the money being spent on this necessary? Has anyone actually got seriously ill from living in a property? Who is policing the testers and the decontamination companies?

It became apparent to me that there was a big problem back in February 2016. I was invited to speak at an property agency training day in Auckland and before my presentation, a highly respected legal consultant presented before me. His presentation was going to be on the new Health and Safety at Work Act, but it was soon to be hijacked around the risks of methamphetamine contamination. He stated that under the new Health and Safety at Work Act, every rental property would have to be tested for methamphetamine contamination and every property manager was putting themselves at risk by going into untested properties. It all seemed a bit over the top to me.

At the end of his presentation, he then proudly announced that his company had just launched their new “meth testing service”.

Scaremongering? I’ll let you make up your own mind.

What this presentation did though was to prompt me to start researching the industry, if he was getting into it, who else was?

The results shocked me. In May and June 2016, at least 20 companies had been set up to do work within the testing and remediation sector. None had been set up during same period the previous year.

In July 2016 I wrote an article “Welcome to the Wild West of Meth Testing” arguing that the industry was wide open to corruption with a massive increase in the amount of companies being set up without regulation.

After getting plenty of support from that article, I became convinced that what we were witnessing what was at best scaremongering with some dubious tactics and at worst, a money-making scam.

Was it all a great big scam? Well, it is too early to tell, but it does need to be investigated. If you give the benefit of the doubt to the early pioneers in this industry they may have been acting on incorrect information or they are only catering to the demand created by decisions that came out of the Tenancy Tribunal. I will be the first to admit that not everyone who works in this industry is bad. I have met many operators who genuinely believe in what they are doing. One, in particular, only started his company after his brother became a meth addict. If you’re in business, it has to be in it for the right reasons.

But as reality begins to bite, many of these individuals will soon be looking for a new job or career as the industry has been dealt a near fatal blow by Sir Peter Gluckman and I for one applaud him.

There is no doubt that there will be literally hundreds of landlords and tenants now seeking some retribution and probably with some justification. We are already seeing the public and media outcry, looking for someone to blame. But who?

One thing being in business does teach you is that when things go wrong, rarely is it the fault of one person. This sorry state of affairs is no different and there are multiple reasons why it escalated to become the scandal it has.

For three years now, I have been collecting Tenancy Tribunal decisions on cases that involve methamphetamine. They make for some interesting reading and one of the key issues is the lack of clarity as to what you can and cannot claim for. There is also a wide range of damages awarded for relatively low levels of contamination.

Here are some simple examples.

Case Number 4005320, June 13 2016 The tenant is ordered to pay $35,764.72 to the landlord. The highest reading of eight tests was 2.6 micrograms and only three were above the then guidelines of 0.5 micrograms. The entire property was refurbished after recommendations by the company Prodecon.

Case Number 4065206, March 20 2017 The tenant is ordered to pay $3007.83 for decontamination and $2,318.50 for testing with a reading of 2.5 micrograms. That’s a $30,000 difference.

Case Number 4083990, June 1 2017 The tenant is ordered to pay for cleaning and testing due to contamination even though the highest reading is well under Ministry of Health guidelines.

Yet probably one of the most controversial decisions was made by Adjudicator Hogan who released a tenant from a fixed term tenancy back in March 2016 stating that any level of methamphetamine was too high. In this case, the highest reading was 0.17 micrograms.

It was the Tenancy Tribunal who came to the conclusion as to what was acceptable or uninhabitable. The reality is that they made rulings based on a Ministry of Health document written back in 2010 for Guidelines for the Remediation of Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratory Sites. This document stated that levels for contamination for labs should not exceed 0.5 micrograms.

In the Tribunal’s eyes, once a property had sufficient traces of meth, it was deemed to be health risk even though the likelihood is that it was through use rather than manufacturing and this was the first big mistake.

A prime example is when you get a reading of 212 micrograms as we saw in one case late last year, you can presume that it is a lab. Yet these cases are few and far between.

By making that decision the Tenancy Tribunal opened the floodgates.

There is a sense of hypocrisy from certain media outlets when you read the scandalous stories about how millions have been wasted, tenants have been unnecessarily evicted and landlords have been left out of pocket.

Yet the same outlets that are writing these stories were quick to run the shock and horror stories around how 40% of properties are contaminated by meth. The Meth Map was a clever marketing technique developed by Methsolutions. They used to release it every quarter and it was lapped up by media outlets highlighting the “scourge of meth contamination”. The big headlines that you saw only lead to more and more fear and played into the hands of the companies that did the testing. Some reporting simply threw paraffin over the flame and this fed the frenzy and moral panic.

It was only in the Spring of 2017 that more and more scrutiny was being put onto the industry by the media.

The Meth Map was a particular irritant to me. The reality is that amounts as minuscule as 0.05 micrograms where identified on the Meth Map as a contaminated property. A microgram is one millionth of a gram. 0.05 micrograms is 500,000,000 of a gram. Yet even after the updated standards 1.5 micrograms were set, we still saw the Meth Map highlighting that 40% of properties were contaminated. This, in my opinion is deceptive and misleading. Yet no one from the media ever questioned it.

Regardless of your political position, some of the responsibility lies with the National Party. This happened on their watch and they were too slow to act. You also have to look at the selection process for the Standards Committee that was set up in 2016.

Why was Sir Peter Gluckman not involved in this or Dr Nick Kim who has long been outspoken about the money being wasted. In retrospect, the committee should have been made up purely by scientists because at the end of the day, this is what it is about.

How can people involved in property contribute on something that they have no knowledge about? Were people with a commercial interest in the industry appropriately balanced out by more independent experts?

The selection of the committee appears to be flawed. It was decided that trying to differentiate between Labs and third hand smoke was too difficult, so an unworkable standard was set.

At some point, you have to look at how some of these operators have gone about their business. I often heard cases of testing companies making recommendations as to who to use in regards of decontamination. An industry that went from having a handful of operators in 2015 exploded into well over 100 by the end of 2016. Some of the training was through a two-hour Skype session and away you go, you are now a professional tester.

Not all operators are bad, and I have met some good, hard working people within the industry. But the reality is that many joined it as they saw the gravy training running out of the station and they had to get onboard.

What happens next? I am of the opinion that this is the beginning of the end for many in this industry. Would I rent out a property if it had readings of under 15 micrograms which is the new guideline being recommended in the Gluckman report? Yes, I would, and more importantly I would be happy to live in it.

The reality is though many wouldn’t and the stigma that goes with a property will stick.

No one wants to be the property manager who rented out the contaminated property to the young solo mum whose toddler got sick and nearly died. The fear of litigation and recrimination is too great and as such a risk averse approach has evolved.

Yet the numbers do not lie, and we should as an industry move on. The Gluckman report does have some compelling facts to back up its validity.

  • Of over 13,000 surface swipes taken over 75% had methamphetamine levels under 1.5 micrograms
  • The average level for positive samples was only 2.7 micrograms
  • Less than 1% tested above 30 micrograms suggesting a low prevalence of properties potentially used for manufacturing.
  • Since 2013 a national register monitoring diseases, injuries and illnesses from hazardous substances has been maintained. Between 2014 and 2016, two cases of food poisoning (from the same household) were attributed to methamphetamine intake via a contaminated container. No other confirmed cases have been reported.
  • 74 meth labs where detected in 2016 and 50 of those where in rental properties. This number is decreasing as most methamphetamine is imported. In 2009 it was 135.

There are currently 680,000 rental properties in New Zealand. Let’s say that Police identified 50% of the meth labs and there are 100 in rental properties in New Zealand. This means that you have 0.015% chance of having a rental property with a meth lab.

My views are as follows:

  • The Standards New Zealand standard for testing and decontamination of methamphetamine-contaminated properties needs to be reviewed and updated, immediately. In the meantime, Tenancy Tribunal adjudicators must read and understand the Gluckman report as soon they can so they can take into account in the cases coming before them.
  • REA have stated that Real Estate agents are not obligated to disclose confirmed results below 15 micrograms per 100cm2 unless asked.
  • Insurance companies will be reviewing this report at great length with meetings and discussions taking place up and down the country. My view is that they will eventually stop taking the approach that Meth Testing should be compulsory due to the fact that the latest report makes the recommendation to stop doing composite testing.
  • Tenants should not expect compensation because, at the end of the day, many of them have committed an unlawful act in the property they were renting by smoking meth in the property. That itself gives the landlord the right to ask the tenancy tribunal to terminate the tenancy.

I am fully aware that the default mindset for many Property Management business will be to take a “risk averse” approach until we hear otherwise. However, in my opinion, this report provides enough evidence to think otherwise. Some people have suggested that the report is “politically motivated” to release more state housing. There may be some truth in that however some people have made suggestions that Sir Peter Gluckman is being influenced by the government. I totally reject this suggestion, he is a man of integrity and accusing the government of having no regard for the health and wellbeing of the occupants of these properties is a nonsense. No government of this country would take such an approach.

HNZ has spent $100 million alone in cleaning and decontamination. This is taxpayer’s money. How many houses could have been installed with central heating or double glazing? If you had allocated $15,000 on heating for each of these houses you would have covered over 6,500 properties. This is more beneficial to people of New Zealand. Just ask the family of Emma Lita-Bourne.

David Faulkner is director of property management consultants Real-iQ


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