ELLSWORTH — Maine disclosure forms reveal a lot of potential problems for prospective home buyers. Is there asbestos? Radon? How much does it cost to heat? Where is waste disposed? But one question that isn’t answered on disclosure forms might give some buyers pause: is the home contaminated with methamphetamine?
“A new home buyer doesn’t have any protection,” said Bill York, owner of Gorham-based Meth Remediators. “And they’ve just bought a toxic environment.”
Margaret McVey, to her dismay, is now one of those homeowners. McVey has been renting out her property in Southwest Harbor for 13 years.
McVey limits where she advertises, requires a deposit for first, last and security, meets prospective tenants in advance and checks references. Like most landlords, she has had a few bad experiences with renters. But McVey never could have imagined the situation she found herself in this summer.
“When I walked in there I could see there were some needles,” McVey said. “There were 20 small propane canisters; there were big bottles of sludgy-looking liquid. The smell in there was unbelievable.”
“There was rotting food and molding clothes. There was garbage piled up to about chest height in some areas. Cigarette butts everywhere,” said McVey, adding that the apartment was non-smoking. The tenants had been there for two years, said McVey, and she had inspected the apartment after a year and found no issues. McVey said she visited the property once every month or two to do yard work.
McVey called Brewer-based Penobscot Cleaning Services Inc. to help deal with the mess.
“They came over and they started cleaning it and within 30 minutes they found enough stuff to say that the tenants had been cooking meth,” McVey said. (Her former tenants were later convicted of making the drug at a residence in Ellsworth, she said.)
The cleaning crew stopped its work and called the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and Southwest Harbor Police. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection also responded, McVey said, and agents removed needles as well as other hazardous and flammable materials, clearing the way for the cleanup company she hired to finish its work.
Methamphetamine is manufactured with a cocktail of chemicals, from acetone to sulfuric acid, and residue from smoking or manufacturing the drug can adhere to carpets, furniture and nearly anything else in the home.
“It’s like a cigar,” York said. “It sticks to everything. The only difference is the chemicals.”
There’s little research on third-hand exposure to the drug. A case reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2017 found symptoms of a family living in a former methamphetamine laboratory to include skin rashes, trouble sleeping, memory problems, blurry vision and irritability.
An Illinois Department of Public Health fact sheet lists similar symptoms and notes that some of the chemicals produced during cooking may be carcinogenic.
The bill for the hazmat crew on McVey’s property came in at $8,300. Then there was $900 for dumpsters to haul away 40 cubic yards of trash, along with six months of lost rent and electric bills, which McVey tallies at around $9,000. It will cost another $23,000 to make it habitable, said McVey, including removing the bathtub, cabinets, sinks and baseboard heaters and painting with a vapor-sealing paint. Her insurance refused to cover any of the costs, said McVey, saying it does not cover “pollutants.”
“I’m looking into selling the place because I’ve kind of lost my mind.”
“I can’t sell it in the general market,” said the Blue Hill resident. “I don’t want to put anyone else in a situation like I’m in.”
McVey plans to pay for testing and disclose the history of the property to a potential home buyer and said she will sell only to someone who is aware of the work needing to be done.
But Maine law doesn’t require her to do so.
“You could go out and stick a [for sale] sign on your lawn as soon as the cop’s taillights are out of the driveway,” York said. The state does list properties in a “clandestine lab” database, York said, but it’s often not up to date. There were 49 properties on the list, which dates from 2004 to September 2017. But there were 58 clandestine lab-related methamphetamine incidents last year alone, according to the agency’s annual report, and 126 in 2016.
A lack of information means prospective home buyers and renters are often left in the dark.
“There’s nothing to go by; there’s no guidance,” said York, slightly exasperated. “It’s a big mess.”
“You’ve got toxic chemicals involved and they’ve skipped out in the dark and you’ve got a $20,000 remediation bill.”