The Bristol Bay Housing Authority found 29 of its units show signs of meth contamination. It can cost roughly $100,000 to clean a badly contaminated unit.
When a person smokes methamphetamine inside a building, the vaporized crystals can linger long after the meth user moves out. That is creating a problem for the Bristol Bay Housing Authority, which works with state and federal organizations to provide affordable housing for low-income residents.
BBHA began testing units for meth a few months ago as part of their annual inspections. So far, 29 units show signs of meth contamination. The only bright side is that none of them seem to be former meth labs.
“This is a two-bedroom place – a vacant unit. Maintenance staff let us know that there’s a lot of traffic in and out. And as the units become vacant, we test,” said Emil Larson, the deputy director of BBHA. He walked with me through an uncontaminated apartment to point out the areas where vaporized chemicals from meth are most likely to collect.
“There’s two fans. There’s a fan in the kitchen above the range. That fan vents up and out. And then there’s another fan in the bathroom that also vents up and out,” he explained.
BBHA has dealt with drug use in public housing before; it has trained staff to properly dispose of discarded heroin needles when they find them. But executive director Brenda Akelkok said that dealing with meth contamination is much more complicated.
“The problem with meth is when you smoke it, it creates a vapor, and you end up with surface contamination wherever it is you’re smoking it, that can be absorbed through the skin, and it’s harmful to children, it’s harmful to people in general,” said Akelkok.
Meth residue is much less obvious than a used syringe. It’s also much more expensive to clean. Akelkok estimates that remediation could cost $40,000 per unit, with more intensive operations approaching $100,000. For housing where rent can be $150 a month, Akelkok said that intensive remediation could bankrupt a property.
“If it’s a unit that still has carpet in it, we’ll have to take out the carpeting,” she said. “We’re going now to a vinyl laminate flooring – it’ll be easier to wipe down. Sometimes you have to remove the refrigerator, because there’s a fan underneath the refrigerator where it’s taking in air and if there’s meth that’s vaporized, it could be up in the coils of your refrigerator. If we do find a highly contaminated unit, we may have to take the unit down to the studs, and that would be a lot more expensive.”
Another complication is that some of the contaminated units are occupied, and BBHA said that it cannot remediate an apartment unless it is vacant.
In order to test for meth residue, staff wipe down apartments with a chemical called trisodium phosphate. They then send the swab to a lab in Utah. If the results show a level of contamination above what the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation says is safe, the apartment must be decontaminated.
“When you smoke it, it’s basically invisible,” said Andy Jones. He is the Director of the Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention at the Department of Health and Social Services. “So even if meth is smoked once in a home, you’ll find traces, somehow, throughout the house. These chemicals, either through production or use, are absorbed through the skin. So I think those are the big concerns right there, is one, that third-hand exposure, because child, adults, whoever it may be, these are chemicals that are not designed to be ingested whatsoever.”
Exposure to meth residue can pose health risks. But just how much contamination is harmful is uncertain. Alaska’s fit-for-use cleanup standard is .1 μg/100 cm2 – .1 micrograms per 100 square centimeters. But in 2009, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment released a study that examined third-hand meth toxicity. It found that a contamination level up to 15 times greater than Alaska’s standard was not harmful. California subsequently raised its cleanup standard to 1.5/100 cm2, and several states followed suit.
Alaska continues to abide by the stricter standard. This means that property owners – including public housing organizations like BBHA – generally end up paying more to bring down residue levels. In the short-term, it also means that a long waiting list of people in need of housing is held up further as units that test positive undergo decontamination.
BBHA is still in the initial stages of inspection and remediation. It’s unsure what the total cost or time frame for cleaning its units will be. It took a large step forward in November, when 13 of its staff received Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response training that certifies them to decontaminate units. Right now, Akelkok says that they are focused on minimizing health risks while making housing available as quickly as possible.
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