In the backyard of the suspected meth lab home, it’s surprisingly peaceful. Birds and insects are chirping, wind chimes on the front porch tinkle when a breeze goes through. There’s a hydrangea bush in full bloom.
But the windows of the house are all boarded up. And inside, Rita Simon of Simon Environmental is testing key areas to determine whether the house is actually contaminated by meth.
Simon’s inside now, but even getting into the house to do her job was a trial. First, she and her granddaughter—who’s being trained in the family business—unscrew the heavy plywood boarding up the door.
Next, Simon suits up in a TyChem suit. It doesn’t let anything through, including air. The suit material is heavy, like a tarp, and it’s incredibly hot inside.
Then Simon hits a snafu. The door is supposed to be unlocked, but it’s not.
“I can’t stay in the suit all day long,” she says. “It’s either that or break out a window.”
Still rustling in the TyChem suit, Simon grabs a crow bar and tries to break in through one of the door’s windows.
No luck -- it’s not breaking. Finally, Simon’s husband and business partner, John, shows up and pries the door open.
Simon Environmental is one of three companies in the state that abates clandestine meth labs. They’ve been in the field for four years—before that, they removed mold and asbestos from homes.
“Actually, we started taking some classes for other things, and then seeing how bad this was on children,” Simon said. “Because there are so many kids exposed to it. And then we saw that so much of it was getting back out on the streets and then we decided that’s a good thing to get into.”
Methamphetamine is popular partly because it can be made from everyday ingredients, such as cold medicine, drain cleaner, rubbing alcohol and paint thinner. It’s usually smoked, snorted or injected, and is very addictive.
Besides being dangerous to users, meth contaminates its surroundings. It gets in the furniture, walls and appliances and can cause respiratory illnesses and other health problems.
That’s where meth cleanup companies like Simon Environmental come in. Once a meth lab is busted, the building is condemned. The owner has two options: have it demolished, or pay a company to clean it up.
John Simon says the demand for meth clean-up is leading them away from mold and asbestos removal.
“We’re shying away from it as much as we can because there’s a lot more demand for meth right here where we are,” he said.
Brandon Lewis coordinates the clandestine drug lab program for the state Department of Health and Human Resources. So far this year, he’s tracked 63 meth labs in the state – up from 43 last year.
“I would say, we may top out at 100 this year,” he said. “We really might. We’re definitely well on our way.”
Most of these meth labs were uncovered in the central and southern part of the state. Lewis says there weren’t any labs found in the panhandles. He’s not sure why.
More than half of those meth labs were in Kanawha County – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has the state’s worst meth problem.
“They’re really proactive when it comes to methamphetamine enforcement,” Lewis said. “I mean, you’ve got the meth tip line in Kanawha County; you’ve got metro drug unit.
“I could probably bet my salary that every county in the state has meth labs. Whether or not they have the manpower to go out and fight it, to look for it, that’s another story.”
Abating a meth lab isn’t cheap. John Simon estimates it can cost $5,000 to $15,000, depending on the contamination level of the house.
First, there’s the testing. With a sample pad, Rita Simon wipes small spots on various places inside—the walls, ceiling, floors, appliances, and furnace. She places them in test tubes and sends them to a lab in Utah.
Next, there’s the cleaning. Across town, a crew starts work on another house that’s tested positive for meth. Four men in TyChem suits are cleaning out the house, throwing everything—furniture, clothes, dishes—into a large dump truck.
“Because everything has to go to the landfill,” he says. “Everything in there, if it’s hot. Everything goes to the landfill.”
This is already their second load, and they have several more to go. Inside, UNO cards and garbage litter the floor. A mouse runs behind the door.
When the house is empty, the crew washes the interior of the house. John Simon likens it to taking the entire house and sticking it in a bathtub.
“They’re pressure washing; they’re scrubbing the walls,” he says. “The pressure washer injects soap, soapy water on the walls. Then they take scrub brushes and they scrub them.
“They use wet or dry vacs and keep the water sucked up at the same time. Then they rinse the walls.”
Once the washing is done, the house will be tested again. If it’s clean, the state will issue it a certificate and it’s cleared to be reoccupied.
As for the future, state lawmakers have made it easier for prosecutors to put meth-makers in prison. They’ve restricted access to certain cold medicines, too.
But with new techniques, such as “Shake and Bake,” Lewis says there will be no shortage of business for the Simons.
“We’ve actually had one ephedrine lab in the state where they were actually making the ephedrine to make methamphetamine,” he said. “Meth cooks are meth cooks and they’ll find ways around that.”
For a wealth of resources on identifying and dealing safely with abandoned meth labs, visit Meth Lab Homes.