To test or not to test?

Rosemary Pritchard-Lundy weighs in on the Gluckman report and what it means for the methamphetamine testing and remediation industry.

Rosemary Pritchard-Lundy* weighs in on the Gluckman report and what it means for the methamphetamine testing and remediation industry.

On 29 May 2018 the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, dropped a bombshell with the release of his report, Methamphetamine contamination in residential properties: Exposures, risk levels, and interpretation of standards.

The report had many in New Zealand rejoicing while the testing and remediation industry was left reeling.  This article looks at the findings of the Gluckman report, what it means for those working in the industry and where to from here.  The Gluckman report was commissioned by the Minister for Housing and Urban Development, the Honourable Phil Twyford. The conclusions of the report can be summarised as follows:

Report conclusions

  • There is currently no evidence that levels typically resulting from third-hand exposure to methamphetamine smoking residues on household surfaces will cause adverse health effects. Noting that an absence of evidence is no evidence of absence of an effect. There is a need for more research.
  • The level of 1.5/100cm2 used in NZ Standard, NZS 8510:2017, to guide remediation does not distinguish between sites of manufacture and sites of use and is deliberately conservative with large safety margins.
  • Exposure to methamphetamine levels below 15/100cm2 would be unlikely to give rise to any adverse health effects.
  • Testing for low-levels of methamphetamine in New Zealand has come at a high cost and whilst aimed at being protective of health, has been disproportionate to the actual health risks. Trade-offs need to be considered, particularly in relation to social housing, where the risks of unstable housing situations are likely to be far greater than the risk of exposure to low-level methamphetamine residue.
  • It is important that guidelines for mitigation measures are proportionate to the risk posed and that remediation strategies are informed by a risk-based approach. Accordingly testing is not warranted in most cases. Remediation according to NZS 8510:2017 is only appropriate for identified former labs and properties where excessive methamphetamine use has occurred, as indicated by high levels of methamphetamine contamination.

Following the release of the Gluckman report Minister Twyford announced with immediate effect Housing NZ would change its policy so that hundreds of properties with contamination levels of up to 15/100cm2 could be put back into use.  Minister Twyford also stated that within 12 months a new, less stringent, standard would be made.

Public response

Various public and private sector organisations have had varied responses to the Gluckman report, for example:

  • The normally conservative Standards NZ said it is open to change in light of the Gluckman report.
  • The Real Estate Authority released advice that agents must now disclose methamphetamine contamination to a prospective buyer if contamination is at a level of 15/100cm2 or higher. Agents are not obliged to disclose results below that level unless asked.
  • Orders made by the Tenancy Tribunal since the release of the report have followed the level prescribed in NZS 8510:2017.
  • Insurance companies appear to be adhering to NZS 8510:2017 in relation to claims. However the Insurance Council chief executive, Tim Grafton, says NZS 8510:2017 should be updated.
  • Local councils are each taking different approaches to the issue.
  • The National Party has stated that mistakes were made in relation to its response to methamphetamine contamination.
  • Housing NZ Chief Executive, Andrew McKenzie, has apologised for the eviction of tenants for methamphetamine-related reasons, saying Housing NZ has moved to a “zero eviction” policy.

What is consistent is that the media and others have vilified the methamphetamine testing and remediation industry for supposedly hyping up what is now being referred to as the ‘meth-house’ myth. Some industry colleagues have been criticised and threatened for working to NZS 8510:2017, when they believed it was best practice to do so.

NZS 8510:2017

It is worth considering how we got NZS 8510:2017.  From August 2010 to June 2017 guidance came from the Ministry of Health Guidelines for the Remediation of Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratory Sites.  The Ministry of Health Guidelines stated the acceptable level, after remediation, was 0.5/100cm2. This guideline was based on the Australian Clandestine Drug Laboratory Remediation Guidelines which recommended a level of 0.5/100cm2.  In Australia, that guideline remains in effect.

To assist the making of a standard in New Zealand, the ESR (New Zealand’s Crown research institute) published a report in 2016, Review of Remediation Standards for Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratories: Risk Assessment recommendations for a New Zealand Standard.  The ESR report recommended:

  • A clean-up standard of 0.5/100cm2 in respect of former labs (it was noted that the risk assessment of methamphetamine itself would support a level of 2.0/100cm2 however a former lab is likely to contain a wide variety of persistent toxicants that may be inadequately accounted for without complete and costly analytical measurement and risk assessment);
  • A clean-up standard 1.5/100cm2 in respect of non-lab houses with carpet; and
  • A clean-up standard of 2.0/100cm2 in respect of non-lab houses without carpet.

In June 2017 Standards NZ published NZS 8510:2017 which recommended an acceptable remediated level of 1.5/100cm2 for both labs and sites of use of methamphetamine. NZS 8510:2017 is voluntary.  At that time it was the highest standard internationally.  It remains the highest standard internationally.

Critics of NZS 8510:2017 say that the 1.5/100cm2 level should not have been applied to properties where methamphetamine has been used as opposed to manufactured.  Some say the Gluckman report sensibly highlights different requirements for former labs and sites of use.

However the 2016 ESR report clearly considered both situations and recommended clean-up levels of 0.5/100cm2 for former labs and 1.5 – 2.0/100cm2 for non-labs.  It is understood that the Gluckman report considers the same information available to the ESR when completing the 2016 report.

I recently approached the ESR to enquire whether it stands behind the recommendations in its 2016 report, in light of the Gluckman report. I was advised in response that the science in both the ESR report and the Gluckman report are correct, however, it is the interpretation of the resulting level that differs.

So, which is right – NZS 8510:2017 or the Gluckman report? What is the safe level – 1.5/100cm2 or 15/100cm2 or something in between?  As I understand it, the scientific research is not yet in a place to give us a definitive answer.  Even the Gluckman report acknowledges “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of an effect.  There is a clear need for more research and a co-ordinated inter-agency effort to build up a robust dataset.”

Dr Jackie Wright of Flinders University in Adelaide completed a thesis in 2016 titled, Exposure and Risk Associated with Clandestine Amphetamine-Type Stimulant Drug Laboratories. Dr Wright was consulted and her thesis referred to in the Gluckman report.  However, Dr Wright has advised key research was not considered in the Gluckman report, which she provided to Mr Gluckman’s office.  Those matters overlooked include:

  • The Gluckman report suggests a cut off of 30/100cm2 as indicative of a site where manufacture of methamphetamine has occurred. Dr Wright presented data from 100 homes known to be used for manufacture, covering a wide range of manufacture methods, which shows methamphetamine residue levels that are from manufacture are routinely below 30/100cm2. The inference that only high levels of methamphetamine residue relate to manufacture and lower levels relate to use, is not supported by any data.
  • The Gluckman report asserts the toxicity of methamphetamine residue from manufacture is different to that from methamphetamine use. There is no data to support that assertion.  Scientific studies that have been conducted in this area have regularly used methamphetamine residues deposited from use as an alternative for residues deposited from manufacture, as they are deposited in the same way.
  • Dr Wright presented five case studies where the source of methamphetamine contamination on surfaces includes manufacture and/or use.  The case studies show varied and significant health effects in a range of individuals exposed to methamphetamine residues below the level of 15/100cm2, they also showed data on methamphetamine levels within the body (derived from hair sampling).

Conclusions from the Gluckman report

In my own experience I see the following issues with the conclusions in the Gluckman report:

  • It is difficult on inspection to identify whether a suspected contaminated property has been a lab or a site of methamphetamine use. The report’s suggestion that only properties suspected of being labs should be tested will therefore create a dangerous precedent.
  • I have personally spoken to hundreds of people who have suffered ill health effects from properties contaminated by use or with low-level contamination. No doubt there are many more cases.  Unfortunately there is a lack of medical reporting in this respect.  I believe there needs to be education around identifying health issues caused by contaminated properties and processes to report such cases.  This would provide a critical source of information to determine safe contamination levels.  With many Housing NZ tenants returning to properties with contamination levels up to 15/100cm2, such education/processes will be crucial.  I agree with the Gluckman report that more research in this area is needed to satisfactorily determine what are safe levels of contamination.
  • I have spoken with those who have experienced rashes, impaired eyesight, respiratory issues, nausea and other health issues in properties with levels significantly less than 15/100cm2. I recently stayed overnight in a room where I experienced tingling lips, an itchy throat, swollen glands, difficulty sleeping and unclear or muddled thoughts.  That room was tested and the levels were 2.0/100cm2.
  • I have more than 30 years’ experience in the cleaning industry and that experience tells me that we need to take a cautious approach in respect of methamphetamine contamination levels. It took years before the serious risks associated with asbestos and pesticides became public knowledge.  Many suffered significant health effects as a result.  I believe that further research should be carried out to clearly determine safe contamination levels (rather than relying on a lack of evidence to assume safety).
  • For me the bottom line is this: would I live in a property with levels as high as 15g/100cm2? Would I allow my children and grandchildren to do so? Absolutely not. And I could not, in good conscience, say that I think it would be safe for other New Zealand families.

Residential Tenancies Bill (No 2)

The coming months will undoubtedly see a number of developments in this area.  The Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill (No 2) will soon have its second reading in Parliament. If the Bill is approved it allows for the Governor General, on the recommendation of the Minister, to make regulations which can include the following matters:

  • Maximum acceptable levels of contaminants (methamphetamine);
  • Methods for carrying out tests for the presence of contaminants and who is authorised to carry out testing; and
  • Describing decontamination processes.

In making recommendations the Minister is to have regard to any relevant NZ Standard (NZS 8510:2017 in this case). Once such a regulation is made it will legislate the maximum acceptable level of methamphetamine contamination, which will likely supersede any voluntary NZ standard.

Minister Twyford has indicated the Gluckman report, along with NZS 8510:2017 will contribute to any regulations that may be made under the Residential Tenancies Bill (No 2).  He further stated: “I expect, pending Cabinet agreement, that there will be a public consultation document on meth regulations later this year”.

Public consultation on acceptable methamphetamine contamination levels or a review of NZS 8510:2017 will be a key step towards resolution of the issues currently faced.  Accordingly one would hope that such process will not be bypassed by Minister Twyford in favour of making regulations under the Residential Tenancies Bill (No 2) once it is passed. Accordingly it is important for the industry to call for the review of NZS 8510:2017 and to actively participate in such review when the time comes.

Where to from here?

Where does that leave those working in the industry in the meantime?  Until NZS 8510:2017 is reviewed or a level is confirmed in legislation, it remains best and safest practice to work to NZS 8510:2017 (particularly considering recent Tenancy Tribunal decisions and the approach of insurance companies).

However NZS 8510:2017 is voluntary.  Accordingly, before commencing any work it will be important for practitioners to have frank discussions with clients about their expectations.  Practitioners should ensure that they have clear instructions from clients regarding the level they are expected to work to and if necessary record such understandings in writing.

Whilst there is concern about what the Gluckman report will mean for the industry, what prevails with every industry colleague that I have spoken to is a genuine concern about the safety and wellbeing of New Zealanders who will be affected by contaminated properties.

We are yet to see the full impact of the Gluckman report and the outcome of any review of NZS 8510:2017, but by actively participating in any public consultation it is hoped that a credible standard can be reached that will give confidence to both the public and the industry.

*Rosemary Pritchard-Lundy is managing director of Cleaning Systems

This was first published in the August issue of INCLEAN NZ

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