Are you living in a former meth lab?
(.B. Forbes /P-D)
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Jason Dowdell and Michelle DiLorenzo thought the three-bedroom ranch along a quiet, winding Jefferson County road would be the perfect place to start their life together.
They envisioned a nursery in one bedroom. Toys in the backyard. Perennials in the planters.
But all that was put on hold two years later when they learned the home was contaminated with enough methamphetamine residue to be condemned in more than a dozen states.
Under Missouri law, they were supposed to be told before they bought it that it was once a meth factory. But they weren't — a common failure in Missouri and Illinois, the heart of America's meth labs.
"There are so many other houses like this out there," said DiLorenzo, 24. "Why aren't they doing anything about it?"
A Post-Dispatch investigation found that both states have failed to protect residents from moving into former meth labs that can lower property values, and, some experts believe, make people sick.
The newspaper found:
— Toxic residue from meth labs has lingered in area homes for as long as four years after busts.
— Home sellers and landlords routinely violate Missouri's law requiring residents be told before moving into former meth labs. Illinois has yet to adopt such a law.
— Residents have nowhere to easily find out whether a home was ever a meth lab, unlike in other states that publish lists of addresses and flag property records.
One out of every five of the country's more than 100,000 meth labs has been found in Missouri and Illinois, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Police have found remnants of meth-making equipment and toxic byproducts inside homes, apartments and hotels, as well as dumped along roadways, in yards and cars.
But once officers box up the evidence, the homes are left virtually untouched.
A LINGERING PROBLEM
For the past 10 years, national health experts say they have linked exposure to meth residue to adverse health effects.
The research hasn't convinced Missouri or Illinois legislators to require that former meth labs be cleaned. But it has convinced 18 states to require that homes be decontaminated before people can move back in.
In 13 of those states, the requirements are so strict that homes remain condemned until testing shows barely a trace of meth. The acceptable level is the equivalent of spreading no more than one sugar packet of meth residue across 23 football fields.
The Post-Dispatch tested five homes police busted for meth and where new families are living.
They ranged from a recently rehabbed one-story in north St. Louis County to a split-level anchoring a cul-de-sac in O'Fallon, Mo. Months and, in some cases, years had passed since meth labs in the homes were busted, according to police reports. The tests revealed residue levels in all five homes high enough to be condemned in 13 of the 18 states.
"If five of five homes came back positive, imagine if you tested 100 homes," said Dowdell, whose home was tested. "And then imagine how many times those homes have been sold and resold."
Cleanup companies along with national and local health experts say it's common for meth labs that haven't been cleaned to test positive for residue — no matter how long after police busts.
"It doesn't just go away over time," said Michael Frakes, who co-owns Chicago Crime Scene Cleanup LLC, a company the newspaper commissioned to collect samples.
The newspaper's findings shocked the residents, who said they did not know they were living in former meth labs until they were contacted by the Post-Dispatch.
Luke and Amy Probst's home yielded the highest levels. The fully rehabbed two-bedroom home along a tree-lined street in Belleville has a new kitchen, carpeting, paint — and average levels of meth contamination 140 times those allowed in 13 states. Amy Probst was furious.
"If I would have known these test results, we would have never bought the house,"・she said.
Contamination levels were the worst in the Probsts' basement, where Luke Probst, a St. Clair County sheriff's deputy, spends most of his time.
"What if someone with kids had moved in here and made the basement a play area?" Amy Probst asked.
NO WAY TO KNOW
Illinois has never required home sellers or landlords to tell new residents of a property's history as a meth lab. A proposal to do so stalled in the state Legislature this year.
Missouri passed its law in 2001.
Former state Rep. Dennis Bonner of Kansas City said he proposed the law because a family told him they had moved into a home and started suffering from allergies. They learned it was a former meth lab only after it tested positive for residue.
"Meth labs put all types of chemicals in a house. That's why, when you see police in them, they're in hazmat suits," said Bonner, who left the Legislature in 2002. "Imagine buying a house and not knowing what it had in it."
But Missouri's law carries no criminal penalties, and few have paid attention.
The Post-Dispatch interviewed more than 30 Missouri families living in former meth labs. Only three said they had found out before moving in — and one of them was told by future neighbors, not the home seller.
The law also requires landlords to tell new tenants if a home or apartment was ever busted for meth. But there is no form landlords are required to provide renters.
Home sellers commonly fill out a disclosure form, which asks about the presence of meth labs next to questions about mold and radon. But it's not required in all sales.
That includes homes sold in foreclosure, because banks have no way to know a home's history.
Home buyers can hire home inspectors, but most lack training to spot the signs of former meth labs or know how to test for contamination.
The only option left for home buyers or renters is to file a civil lawsuit and prove a seller or landlord knew, but didn't tell.
Area lawyers say lawsuits could be costly and hard to prove.
So far, legal experts can point to only one successful lawsuit — in Washington state — where a judge found that home sellers failed to tell buyers about a former meth lab.
Recognizing weaknesses in disclosure laws, several states, including Oregon and Tennessee, require that meth lab reports and cleanup certifications be attached to property deeds. As a result, standard title searches reveal a home's meth lab history even if a seller lies.
NOWHERE TO LOOK
In Missouri and Illinois potential home buyers can't easily find information about former meth labs.
The DEA's website lists only labs busted since 2006. And the Post-Dispatch found that half of all homes busted in Illinois are missing from the list.
Dozens of states have made comprehensive and independent databases of meth lab addresses available online. But not Missouri and Illinois.
In Illinois, police report about three-fourths of busts to state health officials, who said they couldn't afford to post the list online. Residents must file a public records request to get the list.
In Missouri, police don't report lab busts directly to state health officials — but do fill out DEA reports that are funneled through the Missouri Highway Patrol. However, the highway patrol doesn't post the addresses online and won't release them to the public.
In September, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department became the first and only Missouri police agency to post addresses of meth busts online. But the list goes back only to January 2007.
"I would be too cumbersome to go all the way back,"・said Sheriff Oliver "Glenn" Boyer.
Comprehensive databases are key in states without cleanup laws, said Sherry Green, executive director of the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws. The congressionally funded group promotes effective state drug policies. Green said states should not rely on the honesty of sellers or landlords alone.
"There is financial motive on the part of certain individuals to lie," Green said.
Another option for Missouri and Illinois homeowners: Ask the police.
But although police in Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Louis counties released reports of meth lab busts to the newspaper, the Illinois State Police would not.
The agency said a state law requiring the release of public records applied to police reports involving meth labs only if the suspects named in the reports agreed to it.
That infuriated the Probsts, who can't get a police report of the July 2005 bust at their home. All they know is that one took place about a year before they moved in, because it is listed on the Illinois database.
"It's ridiculous," said Amy Probst, a lawyer. "I'm so mad right now and the lawyer in me is asking, 'OK, who do I sue?' But there's nothing we can do, and we did nothing wrong."
NOWHERE TO TURN
DiLorenzo cried at the news that her home was contaminated. Her live-in boyfriend, Dowdell, bowed his head and wrapped his arms around her on the front porch of what was supposed to be their dream home.
They cannot afford to hire professional cleaners, or sell their home at a loss.
Doctors can't say for sure that the meth residue in their home is causing DiLorenzo's headaches, wheezing and nausea, but the couple won't take a chance with loved ones. Their younger siblings are no longer allowed to stay the night.
"My headaches get so bad sometimes that I throw up," DiLorenzo said. "That never happened before I moved in here."
They tried to plant perennials in the front yard earlier this summer, but stopped when they unearthed needles, foils, funnels and bottles of fuel additives. Jefferson County detectives confirmed the materials were once part of a meth lab.
The couple also have stopped investing in home improvement projects. They worry how their home's toxic history will affect their bottom line because they must disclose it to future buyers. Real estate appraisers can't say how much it will lower a property's value, only that it will.
DiLorenzo and Dowdell wondered whether anyone else has unknowingly bought a home with a meth lab in its past.
They didn't have to look far.
DiLorenzo recently checked the federal database to see if a house with a "For Sale" sign along her street was listed.
"Hmm," DiLorenzo said, as she looked down the street. "I wonder who is going to tell them."
The "For Sale" sign came down in May.
A young couple moved in.
The couple told the Post-Dispatch that they hadn't been informed. The home sellers and their real estate agent didn't return a reporter's phone call.
The couple, embarrassed at their fate, asked not to be named in this story.
It's their first house, but it wasn't their first choice. They said they passed on another house because of mold, fearing it might harm their disabled toddler.
Now the child's toys sit in their new front yard.