'P' is for Panic: Meth contamination testing blown out of proportion

by Joanna Wane / 09 April, 2018

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Has the frenzy over a supposed epidemic of meth contamination been revealed as a fizzer?

Protestors cross the Waitangi Bridge as they make a stand against methamphetamine abuse, Waitangi Day, 2017. Photo: Getty/Cam McLaren.

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Testing houses for meth contamination could be overkill

When figures released under the Official Information Act showed Housing New Zealand had spent $51.9 million on testing and remediating meth-contaminated properties in the 2016/2017 financial year – compared to barely $1 million on dealing with mould and asbestos – questions were raised over whether the Government had its priorities straight.

“Thirty thousand children are hospitalised each year from preventable housing-related diseases: asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis,” Philippa Howden-Chapman, the director of Otago University’s housing and health research programme, told Newsroom. How many had become ill from meth contamination, rather than being in cold, damp, mouldy, unsafe houses? “Absolutely none.”

Last June, a new standard was announced with much fanfare, tripling the acceptable level of residue in P-positive homes to 1.5 micrograms per 100cm2. Now, new Housing Minister Phil Twyford has put the whole thorny issue back on the table, saying even the revised figure is set too low to make a meaningful distinction between contamination that may pose a health threat and contamination that does not.

He’s asked for a fresh report on the Ministry of Health guidelines and has previously called for regulation of the meth-testing industry. Also flagged is a change of the policy that’s seen Housing NZ tenants evicted and some 900 properties left vacant after testing positive for meth. Instead, if tenants or family members have a drug problem, it will be treated primarily as a health issue.

“There’s no question, there has been a moral panic about meth contamination, and a meth-testing industry has grown up around it, stoking that moral panic and exploiting it to make a buck,” Twyford told North & South. Private landlords have been hit in the pocket, too, with insurers hiking annual premiums and raising the standard excess for meth-related claims to as much as $2500.

What the new standard fails to do is differentiate between recreational drug use and the toxic traces left by a meth lab (with all the other chemical substances involved in cooking up P). When Dr Nick Kim, a senior lecturer in environmental chemistry at Massey University, tested the residue left on walls by meth smokers, he found the potential health effects of living in a house where people had smoked P in the past were no worse than those of tobacco, or handling meth-contaminated bank notes.

No one, including Twyford, is underplaying the social damage caused by meth. A 2015 survey found New Zealand had the fourth-highest rate of usage in the world (behind El Salvador, the Philippines and Australia). Results from the first drug-sampling of Auckland’s wastewater, released last year, put meth way out in front of the 17 illegal substances that were tested for. And while so-called “party drugs” such as MDMA (ecstasy) were detected almost entirely on weekends, meth showed up consistently throughout the week.

A University of Auckland study of more than 1000 clandestine meth labs identified five North Island “hot spots”, including the Far North, Hamilton and Helensville. However, importation of the finished product by organised-crime gangs from places such as India and China is reportedly growing and driving down the street price; in many parts of the country, it’s now easier to get and cheaper to buy than weed.

This was published in the February 2018 issue of North & South.


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