6 Feb 2019

Calls for meth tests on rental properties in Australia

4:12 pm on 6 February 2019

There are renewed calls in Australia for landlords to test for methamphetamine residue inside their properties after a New South Wales tenant became ill and was forced to abandon her possessions.

A close up photo of two hands with gloves on, swabbing within a 100 square centimetre stencil stuck to a wall. By swabbing within that area, testing companies get a sample that corresponds to Ministry of Health guidelines for meth.

Testing a house for meth contamination. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

Veronica Rawlinson had been experiencing poor health for several months before requesting the four-bedroom home she was leasing in Nowra be swabbed for traces of methamphetamine.

"My energy was really low and then I broke out in a skin rash on my shoulder and my arm," Ms Rawlinson said.

"My doctor did biopsies and it all came back inconclusive, so I contacted a company that does meth testing and the house came back positive.

"Everything changed after that, I left the property with two cats and a handbag because all of my belongings were contaminated and now have to be triple wrapped in plastic and buried in the ground at the tip," Ms Rawlinson said.

Ms Rawlinson said she is now pursuing compensation through the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

"We've been in the tribunal three times now and haven't had any sort of final solution because the law isn't up to date," Ms Rawlinson said.

Scores of positive tests

According to Megan Liddicoat from Meth Detection Australia, every property the company has swabbed on the South Coast has tested positive for residue from the drug meth.

"I haven't actually tested something in the South Coast area that isn't positive," Ms Liddicoat said.

"That's 40 homes that have tested positive."

A test costs around $A250 and is conducted similarly to a litmus test, where a surface is swabbed to reveal whether traces of the chemical are present before a larger sample is sent to a lab for testing.

"I only started this business because I live locally, my family live locally and I'm going to have grandchildren living locally," Ms Liddicoat said.

"I don't think landlords know about the risk that they've got, they don't understand, or it's not been explained to them.

"I don't want my family to suffer the effects of this."

Serious health consequences

Dr Jackie Wright, an Adjunct Researcher at Flinders University, has been studying the impacts and risks of second-hand exposure to methamphetamine.

"From both manufacture and use, those drug residues deposit and stick to all of the hard surfaces in the property," Dr Wright said.

"But they also penetrate all the soft things, so furnishings, carpets and curtains.

"The residue then hangs around for years which means we can actually come into contact with them and absorb that drug into our body."

Dr Wright said the drug can have serious consequences on health and can alter behaviour in children.

"So whenever you're in the house, you're exposed and it's getting in your body," she said.

"What we're seeing is effects such as headaches, persistent coughs, increased susceptibility to coughs, colds and infections, eye irritations, skin rashes, trouble sleeping for kids, and vivid dreams.

"We also find some of the kids have behavioural changes, they're inattentive or some kids become more aggressive in those particular properties."

Industry seeks guidance, backs away from mandatory tests

Industry representatives are acknowledging the issue but backing away from advocating for mandatory screening of rental properties.

"I think before we go down that path we have to actually understand if it does pose a genuine risk," NSW Real Estate Institute chief executive Tim McKibbin said.

"We are aware that methamphetamine is a problem within properties but what we don't know is the extent of the problem."

Mr McKibbin likened the issue to asbestos and called for government assistance in providing guidance around best practice when residue from methamphetamine was detected inside a property.

"This is another example of where government is not prepared to give any genuine assistance to real estate agents who have the problem of trying to determine a substance or an activity is posing a danger," Mr McKibbin said.

"We've sought research out of New Zealand, we've written to the Chief Scientist in Australia and we've written to the Chief Medical Officer and the request has now gone off to a committee.

"It's a pass the parcel exercise where no body wants to take ownership of it, nobody wants to give guidance on it because it could be the case that they would then have to accept some sort of liability for it."

NZ's flawed meth testing regime

Last December, Housing New Zealand started paying compensation to state house tenants who were evicted because of faulty methamphetamine tests.

A report by the Prime Minister's chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman found there had never been a documented case of someone getting sick from third-hand exposure to meth.

He said there has been an inexplicable leap in logic in New Zealand in which clean-up standards for meth labs jumped to become a measure for passive exposure.

The government estimated that about 2400 people from 800 tenancies had been wrongly kicked out of their state houses because of a zero tolerance policy for meth.

A Housing New Zealand report last September acknowledged the approach had had a far-reaching effect on tenants, including losing their tenancies, their possessions, being suspended from the waiting list, poor credit ratings and being made homeless.

It found 542 tenants were charged nearly $7 million in total for meth contamination between 2013 and 2018.


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