P contamination in housing – something we need to worry about? 

How much of a problem is “P” contamination?

It will depend on whether the property has been used as a site for manufacturing “P” (also known as “meth”, methamphetamine or “ice”).

If a house has been used to manufacture “P” then until the house has been properly decontaminated it is likely to be unsafe to live in. Exposure to unsafe levels can cause a number of short- and long-term health issues. Some common symptoms include rashes, headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue and shortness of breath.

According to a new report by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), "Guidelines for the Remediation of Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratory Sites", a safe level of contamination for a “P” lab is 0.5 micrograms per 100 square centimetres.

Where a property has been contaminated due only to the smoking of methamphetamine by its occupants, the levels of contamination are likely to be low. In this case the report recommends that a safe level where the carpets have been removed is 2.0 micrograms per 100 square centimetres; and a safe level where the carpets have been left in the house is 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimetres.

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What is the landlord’s responsibility around ensuring a rental property is not contaminated by methamphetamine?

Under tenancy law, landlords are not required to meth-test their rental properties, however must not knowingly rent out a property that is contaminated. 

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment advises landlords to periodically check for signs of methamphetamine manufacture (in between tenancies or with the agreement of the tenant), and check their insurance cover.

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The  landlord of the place I used to rent wants me to pay for the cost of decontaminating the property , after the rental tested positive for “P” contamination. What are my rights?

If the landlord has reason to believe that you have contaminated the rental property by smoking or manufacturing “P” on the property, they can apply for an order from the Tenancy Tribunal to recover the cost of decontamination and testing the property.

The Tribunal can determine whether having the property decontaminated is justified and whether it can be proved that you are responsible for the property being contaminated.

The landlord will need to convince the Tribunal that you “caused or threatened to cause substantial damage to the house”. Note that it is not enough to show simply that the house has been contaminated, they will need to show why they believe that you caused the contamination.

If you want to dispute what the landlord is saying it is very important that you attend the Tribunal hearing. You can find out more about preparing for or attending a Tribunal hearing on the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Tenancy website or the Tenancy Protection Association website, or contact your local CAB.

In earlier cases the Tribunal has ruled in favour of the landlord and also ordered the tenant to pay for the cost of the decontamination, but it has also ruled in favour of the tenant and ordered the landlord to refund rent money because they rented out a contaminated property.

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How can I tell whether a property is contaminated?

A good start is to ask the property owner (or real estate agent or letting agent) whether the property is contaminated. If you ask them whether contamination is present they have to tell you (if they are aware of it).

The Auckland Regional Public Health Service has a list of warning signs that you can look out for, including the presence of: 

  • unusual chemical smells
  • manufacturing equipment such as chemical containers, containers fitted with glass or rubber tubing
  • yellow / brown stains on the floor, wall, ceiling and appliance surfaces.

The above are signs that the property has been used as a P lab.

There may be no obvious signs that a property has been contaminated as a result of occupants’ smoking methamphetamine on the premises, without conducting meth testing (see the next question).

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What about meth testing?

You can buy a meth testing kit and do it yourself, or contract a meth testing business to do it for you. There are different testing methods with varying degrees of accuracy. Also, it is possible to get variations in test results depending on which meth testing business you use and which surfaces they take samples from.

Another thing to be aware of is that there is currently no industry standard that a person must meet before they can start a meth testing business. More importantly, although there are recommendations regarding safe levels of contamination, these have not yet been incorporated into official standards.

If you are thinking of getting a meth test done on a property first decide how likely it is that the property is contaminated (this might include talking to the neighbours and checking the property for signs of manufacture (see the next Q&A).

If your research supports your suspicions, you might buy a test kit and do it yourself, and only proceed with more in-depth professional testing if your own test suggests that contamination is present.

The cost of decontamination can run to tens of thousands of dollars, so if you are a property owner it may be worth getting a second opinion if the first tests show unsafe levels of contamination.

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What should I do if I think a property has been contaminated?

If you suspect that a property has been contaminated by methamphetamine use or manufacture, you should contact the Police and your local council. If you are a tenant of the property you should also notify your landlord.

Under section 41 of the Health Act 1956 the local authority can order the owner of a property to clean it, if cleaning is necessary to prevent danger to health or for rendering the property fit for occupation.