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For renters and homeowners, former meth labs pose a potential (and often unknown) hazard

8:54 PM, Nov 6, 2012   |    comments
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ST. AUGUSTINE BEACH, Fla. -- Pamela Key didn't have a clue when she moved into her apartment that she'd ever care who used to live there.

"We were actually shown a different apartment, then she gave us the keys to this one"

But a few months before she moved in with her husband and two dogs, their cozy St. Augustine Beach apartment was home to a methamphetamine lab.

"We're very angry. We were never informed of anything," said Key.

In January 2011, St. Johns County Sheriff's Office busted an active meth lab, she notes, "In the bathroom." They took into evidence coffee filters, chemicals and Gatorade bottles with sludgy residue -- all hallmarks of a shake & bake meth cook.

READ PART 1: What happened in Room 216?

Police evacuated the entire apartment building and kept residents out much of the night.

Neighbor Heather Puhl recalls what happened. "There were guys in big white suits pretty much everywhere. It was kind of weird, yeah."

Meth production is itself hazardous. The chemicals used to cook the drug can easily explode. But the stuff left behind is also highly toxic, and can pose a risk to future tenants -- even years later.

For that reason, the 22 states that have cleanup standards typically require not just removing carpets and drapes, but ripping out drywall and appliances.

But Florida doesn't have any standards - and there are no requirements that landlords disclose an apartment's drug history.  

Meth lab tech Danny Wheeler said that's cause for concern.

"When you have a meth lab and it's not clean and you move a family into it without disclosing it to them, and they start having breathing problems, and the kids start having breathing problems -- well this is why it's so important for people to know the severity of it."

So First For You, we hired a national meth lab testing company to take samples of the apartment to see if any meth remained.  As a precaution, the technician went in suited up in Haz Mat gear -- a protection not available to residents.

The samples we took from the apartment came back clean.
According experts we spoke to, a subsequent paint job may be the reason. But while paint can mask pollution, it can't eliminate it. Contamination can remain for years, trapped in -- and gradually leaking from -- the walls.

Apartment residents were relieved the tests came back clean. But they were still upset they weren't told about the building's history.

"Since I found this out I felt really dirty," said resident Theresa Holloway. "Out of respect, I think they should tell people."

Even residents who lived here during the bust have questions about that particular unit's safety.

"Oh, I wouldn't move in there," said Heather Puhl. "There's no way I'd move in there. Even if they cleaned it up, which I'm not sure that they did. I'd be scared to live in a place like that."

But the property's owners say they were just as clueless about the potential danger as their future tenants.

"We had no idea this was a drug unit," said owner Lori Koivu.

Although they knew police had been there, they insist they were never told it was a meth lab or that it needed to be cleaned. Koivu notes the people inside weren't arrested for months -- and were in fact allowed to return to the apartment that night.

"Why wasn't it locked down?" she asks. "Residents were allowed right back in."

St. Johns County officials could not say for sure if warnings were given, but confirmed that warning signs are supposed to be posted, and owners notified.

Koivu said neither happened. "I'm quite upset by it. ... We had a right to know that. We had a right to know that it's just not right."

Whoever dropped the ball, Key said it's clear somebody did. She'd like to see the law changed so nobody else has to endure such an ugly surprise.

"There should definitely be disclosure. No one should have to move into an apt and find out after the fact that their health is at risk."



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