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Toxic timebomb: homes re-let after drug labs busted

By buseman, Jul 31, 2010 | |
  1. buseman
    IN A drab upstairs bedroom of the two-storey eastern suburbs home, CDs labelled with the bubble writing of a young girl are scattered across the dresser.

    In the room next door, where clothes and Lego bricks carpet the floor, a worn teddy bear rests against a mattress.

    The children who lived here can't come back for their things.

    In March this year, when members of the Victoria Police clandestine laboratory squad discovered a methamphetamine laboratory in the downstairs laundry, they removed the evidence, including chemicals and cookware used to make drugs, but left behind a property contaminated with toxic chemical residue.

    'We're very busy with the after-effects of processing the offender,' says Detective Sergeant Brad Nichols. 'But plenty of times our guys will walk away and ask: who cleans this up?

    The answer, in this case, is property remediation specialist Peter Guerin. But many such premises, the majority of which are rental properties, are left in the hands of standard cleaners - potentially putting the health of both the cleaners and future residents at risk, according to chemical toxicology experts.

    Mr Guerin, a former Victoria Police officer, runs Bio-Clean, a Melbourne company that specialises in the remediation of crime scenes. He is also a clandestine drug laboratory decontamination supervisor with the Department of Health in the US state of Washington.

    Australian Crime Commission figures show that in 2008-09, 499 clan labs were detected in Australia, more than triple the number 10 years ago. Eighty-four were in Victoria.

    According to the authority, almost three-quarters of clan labs operate in residential properties, the majority of which are rental premises. This has implications for landlords, insurers, real estate agents and councils.

    People living in these toxic households are exposed to dangerous chemicals and seriously disturbing health risks that often impact on them for the rest of their lives, a crime authority spokesman says.

    Children are particularly vulnerable.

    Detective Sergeant Nichols says children were living in about 50 per cent of the residences found to be housing clan labs in Victoria.

    Although it is presumed police notify the relevant local council of a clan lab's existence, Detective Sergeant Nichols admits this doesn't always happen. Even when it does, he says, most of the people they ring don't have anyone specifically assigned to [deal with cleaning them up].

    Of the 40-plus clan labs already detected in Victoria this year, Mr Guerin has been called in to clean just one. It is unclear who cleaned the other sites.

    But according to Mr Guerin, without a firm set of clean-up guidelines addressing thorough decontamination, the lives of many Victorians are at risk.

    Chemical toxicology expert John Edwards, from South Australia's Flinders University, says that as well as the immediate explosive risks of highly volatile chemicals, the danger of clan labs continued long after drug manufacturing has stopped.

    Anyone living in the property for months afterwards would be at risk, Associate Professor Edwards says.

    Last month, carpet cleaning business Jena Dyco International hosted a forum in Melbourne to discuss the unique clean-up issues associated with clan labs and to promote its recently launched Remediation of Clandestine Lab Residues Course, the first of its kind in Australia.

    Jena Dyco International director Jenny Boymal says it was vital that clan lab remediation guidelines now being considered by the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy be released.

    Guidelines are absolutely integral to ensuring that everyone involved … are aware of the role they play and to ensure the property can be deemed fit for rehabitation, she says.

    The crime commission has deemed the presence of methylamphetamine on inside surfaces at a level greater than 0.5 micrograms per 100cm² as unacceptable.

    At the eastern suburbs clean-up, Mr Guerin's initial swabs reveal levels far beyond. On the lounge carpet, the levels are 12 times higher. In one of the children's bedrooms, they are 38 times higher. Then there are the other nasties: lead, iodine, chromium 6, he says.

    To ensure remediation, he plans to wash all paintwork and remove anything porous, including soft furnishings, light fittings and benchtops.

    This house will be a shell, he says. If you're a landlord and you end up with one of these in your property, you'd want to have good insurance.

    August 1, 2010


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