Meet the people behind SA’s meth lab decontamination industry

On the nightly television news, images of meth lab busts by police are not uncommon. But what happens after everyone leaves the crime scene? (Image source: O’Shea’s Organisation)

By Shashi Baltutis

The methamphetamine trade was thrust into the limelight with the hit US TV-series Breaking Bad. The series follows the story of a chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook after he is diagnosed with cancer. Methamphetamines are not just an issue for the small screen, nor one contained to the US: they are also prevalent in South Australia. In 2016, almost two per cent of the state’s population reported using forms of the drug such as ice, according to SA Health. In response, an industry has formed in Adelaide to combat meth cooks.

O’Shea’s Carpet Cleaning and Restorations was the first business in Adelaide to offer a meth lab remediation service, owner Sean O’Shea said: “It was the next logical step to move into that; it’s part of the restorations business.”

To be able to perform meth lab remediations, Mr O’Shea travelled interstate to complete a course. “We were the first in South Australia [to complete the course],” he said.

Meth lab remediation is now a significant part of Mr O’Shea’s business. “I’m guessing [we’ve had] maybe 30-40 jobs this year … that’s probably just remediation.”

O’Shea’s also conducts testing of properties to determine whether an area is contaminated with methamphetamines.

“A lot of it is invisible [meth contamination],” Mr O’Shea said.

“Other jobs you go to, the place is trashed; it’s wrecked.”

Through his business, Mr O’Shea has seen the impact of methamphetamines on people and properties. “It takes everything and it gives you nothing,” he said.

Mr O’Shea’s business works with experts to make sure properties are thoroughly decontaminated.

One of these experts is Dr John Edwards, who has been an independent toxicologist for more than 35 years.

Dr Edwards’ work includes working with businesses such as O’Shea’s to decide the extent of cleaning required in a particular property. After the cleaning, Dr Edwards provides a clearance test to make sure the property is clean.

The cleaning method that Mr O’Shea and Dr Edwards use aims to not only remove the methamphetamine from the residence, but break the chemicals down to inactive forms so that they cannot cause any harm.

Decontamination is important as people who are not involved with meth, such as residents and police, can be affected by the presence of methamphetamine remnants on a property.

“During the synthesis of methamphetamine … ‘fumes’ or very fine droplets which are formed in the atmosphere from that synthesis … deposit on surfaces and condense, so those surfaces can be contaminated by the direct contact with particular materials,” Dr Edwards said.

Dr Edwards also warned that chemicals used and created in the meth-cooking process can be harmful to residents.

Despite methamphetamine contamination being largely invisible, there are some tell-tale signs to look out for which may indicate the presence of meth or harmful chemicals.

“What we see in recently vacated premises which have had a laboratory more recently is, signs such as scorching and staining, especially around the stove or the laundry area,” Dr Edwards said.

The short-term effects of methamphetamines are heightened awareness and poor judgement, which increases risk-taking behaviour, according to a 2016 article co-written by Dr Edwards.

Exposure to methamphetamines and related chemicals can make people sick without knowing.

“One of the longer-term effects is also a type of amphetamine psychosis, which is related to hallucinations, anxiety, a whole host of psychological problems that are seen in especially longer-term users of amphetamine type stimulants,” Dr Edwards said.

“And these [symptoms] can occur in people who are exposed to generally lower concentrations but for a long time through environmental contamination and of course children will be most susceptible to those types of changes.”

Dr Edwards conducted a study which estimates the number of clandestine meth labs in Adelaide to identify areas to focus anti-drug efforts.

“The probable number of drug laboratories in the Adelaide metropolitan area was around about, on our estimates, 600 laboratories per year.”

Community response can play a key role in detecting and reporting meth labs and contamination. There have been instances where secret meth labs have been detected due to neighbours’ reports, Dr Edwards writes in the 2016 article.

Neighbours are in the best position to be able to monitor suspicious activities in their community, according to Dr Edwards.

“There may be signs that a property is a drug lab: there may be unusual smells, unusual chemical odours, the windows are all blacked out with either plastic or aluminium foil, lots of strange comings and goings during the night …” Dr Edwards said.

Testing and cleaning properties only solves part of the methamphetamine issue in Adelaide. Another aspect is determining culpability for meth contamination.

“Nobody can prove when it got contaminated,” Mr O’Shea said.

Mr O’Shea recalled a client losing over $150,000 due to contamination of their rental property and was not able to prove which tenant was cooking meth.

“All that was left behind was a shell; we ripped out the carpet, the underlay, the curtains …” he said.

Dr Edwards said that landlords should be vigilant.

“If a landlord has regular inspections of their premises, they can then identify whether or not there are some of those issues arising.”

In addition to private organisations, the South Australian Government is working against methamphetamine. Since February 2017, the Ministerial Crystal Methamphetamine Taskforce has been developing responses to the use of meth and its impacts on communities.

With the advice of the Taskforce, the State Government has developed an $8 million Ice Action Plan. The plan includes funding for access to treatment, resourcing family support groups and additional electronic drug testing equipment, among other measures.

In 2019, members of organisations such as the Australian Border Force, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, Australian Federal Police and South Australia Police (SAPOL) teamed up to form the Joint Agency Ice Strike Team (JAIST), which targets the supply and distribution of methamphetamines.

“The JAIST will help give SAPOL a competitive edge over these criminal groups,” SAPOL Assistant Commissioner Scott Duval said.

While law enforcers are doing their bit to clean up Adelaide’s meth problem, Mr O’Shea and his team are doing this, literally, on the frontlines. He’s also been doing some thinking about how to get to the root of the problem.

His proposal to find meth-makers is simple: “What we really need to be doing is pre- and post- meth testing of all rental properties.”

Story originally published in The Junction.

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