Breaking Bad, the hit television series based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is in its final season. While many of us are lamenting that the show will soon be over, I for one am grateful that my everyday life is not a Breaking Bad world of meth labs and drug dealers.
However, it’s best not to be naive. Meth labs are often set up in rental homes, so landlords and property managers are at risk of having their rental properties turned into methamphetamine production facilities. This is a big deal because the chemicals that are used to make meth are highly flammable and explosive. And meth residue is extremely toxic and considered hazardous waste. Once it’s discovered, the property owner is responsible for cleanup, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and most insurance policies won’t cover it. In addition, meth residue can permeate an entire building, which means remediating all affected units, losing rental income, and temporarily relocating residents.
Given the physical dangers and financial consequences of renters setting up meth labs in your rental home, we thought some meth Q&As were in order:
1. What are the health-related symptoms of meth residue?
The health impacts of meth residue exposure are serious, and include headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and chest pain. The central nervous system and blood production system can start to shut down because brain, liver, and kidney damage can occur. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also an increased cancer risk, and exposure for a pregnant woman could trigger fetal birth defects and developmental problems in her baby.
2. What are some indications that there is a meth lab in your rental property?
Cooking meth requires ingredients, so look for signs of things that are necessary to make meth. If you watch Breaking Bad, you might recognize some of them. When you see the list, you understand why it’s so toxic:
- Product packing for over-the-counter ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, which means look for cold, diet, or allergy pill boxes.
- Empty containers of anti-freeze, white gas, ether, or starting fluids.
- Drain openers, freon, lye, paint thinner, acetone, or alcohol.
- Camp stove fuel containers or other compressed gas cylinder.
- Ammonia or propane tanks, anhydrous ammonia (in coolers).
- Dust masks or filters.
- Sheets or filters that are stained red or have a white, powdery residue.
- Jars or bottles with rubber tubing attached.
To make one pound of methamphetamine, six pounds of hazardous, toxic waste is produced. Besides ending up in the walls, floors, HVAC system, carpet and other places, some of the waste is often dumped on the ground, so also look outside for dead grass or plants, and stained soil.
3. What should you do if you find an abandoned or even active meth lab?
Don’t confront anyone. Get out, wash your hands and face immediately, change your clothes, and call the police. If you have trouble breathing, go to an emergency room.
4. How can you prevent having your rental property turned into a meth lab?
- Screening your tenants is critical. People who cook meth tend to end up in rentals that are self-managed and don’t have a standardized tenant screening procedure. So either make sure you have a solid tenant screening system in place, or hire a property management company that does. Make sure you call previous landlords (and confirm that the phone number you have is to the actual landlord, and not someone pretending). Confirm that your applicant was a good tenant in the past. Check employment references, verify income, and do more followup if your tenant pays for everything in cash. Drug dealers often don’t have legal jobs and deal in cash only.
- Include in your lease agreement that there will be regular inspections (with the proper 24- or 48-hour notice, as required by your state’s law). Often just saying there will be regular inspections will deter someone who is engaged in illegal activities.
- Let the neighbors know you’re the property owner, and that if they notice anything suspicious you’d appreciate a phone call to either yourself or your property manager.
5. If you find yourself living a Breaking Bad nightmare, are you required to disclose that your rental property was previously contaminated by methamphetamine?
The answer depends on which state you live in. Scripps Howard news service examined state meth disclosure laws in 2012 and found that seventeen states require property owners to tell renters about prior meth contamination, although several of those states waive that requirement if the meth residue has been officially cleaned up.
One more warning for rental property owners: if you’re planning on expanding your rental property inventory, make sure you’re confident that any properties you purchase weren’t used as meth labs in the past, because as soon as you own it, you become liable for the cleanup. During due diligence, if you have any suspicions, consider checking with the local police department, and have the property tested during the inspection. If you find suspicious residue, you can even test it yourself with a ten-pack meth residue test kit from Amazon.com for about $30. If you get a positive result, that $30 would be money well spent.
Have you had any Breaking Bad experiences with your rental property?
As always, the information provided here is just that–it is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. If you have any particular questions or issues, please consult an attorney.
By Tracey March
 For those who don’t follow it, Breaking Bad is about a high school science teacher (played by Brian Cranston) turned methamphetamine cooker and dealer to provide additional income for his growing family when his cancer treatments start eating up his savings.