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Up in smoke – Methamphetamine & Real Estate


The manufacture and use of methamphetamine has taken place in Montana for decades.  Despite a slight decline in the early 2000s, 2008-2017 witnessed a dramatic increase in methamphetamine use in our state.  (See Fig 2.)

In addition, homebuyer awareness and concern regarding potential meth contamination has increased significantly over the years, leading to increased interest in testing as a component of a real estate transaction. So why is it such a concern?

The processes used in the making of meth can contaminate a residence/building, its grounds, and even the sewer system.  The process uses harmful chemicals and is also dangerous during many parts of the process. Even without an active lab, the act of smoking meth within a property has been shown to be enough to contaminate materials. Meth-contaminated properties are a health hazard for those living there and should be tested to be determined safe.

While past meth production in the home is often the greatest concern for home buyers, it’s the smoking of methamphetamine within the property that can be a less obvious source of contamination.  The most effective way to experience a “high” when using methamphetamine is by smoking it.   Meth can be smoked anywhere.  Which has been the cause of the increased impact on property owners. As was the case in 2019 with clean-up costs alone at just under $500,000 for a  Daycare in Missoula. 

What are the concerns of those involved in buying and selling real estate?

It’s typical for prospective buyers to have a property inspection as a part of their buy/sell agreement.  Property inspections typically include options for testing water for contaminants, radon levels in the home, sewer scope, mold, lead-based paint in older homes, and well-yield inspections.  As stated before, increase awareness of meth contamination has seen requests for testing on the rise.

How is testing performed and what are the issues and concerns for both the buyer and the seller?

There are two “immediate result” test kits that can be purchased and used to test a property.  They are the Accumeth Test Kit and the MethChek Test Kit.  They both work using a similar methodology & technology in how the tests are performed.  They do provide immediate results.  There are two issues with these tests:

  1. They will increase the costs of proceeding forward (because they cannot remove the liability risk with a property in the state of MT.)
  2. They are not the approved test method sanctioned by the State of Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Because of those two issues above, regardless of the validity of a positive result, the property owner will then have to bring in a DEQ Certified Contractor to test the property using the DEQ Certified method to confirm and quantify the results.   This will add extra time and expense to all involved parties.

Because of recent changes to the law in MT property owners now have the legal requirement of disclosure if their property tests positive for meth.  They can sell or rent their property but only with full disclosure.  If they do not disclose they will be liable by law for all damages in a legal case.  There may also be “liability” for the RE Agent involved in selling this property.

The best approach for both buyers & sellers that are concerned about meth contamination is to use the DEQ-certified testing method using a lab that is established in the NIOSH 9111 analytical method.  This is the approach that Safe Home Environmental uses.

We will take 6 discrete samples from the property.  We select test sites based on our experience to find “worst case” results.  We send our samples to ALS Labs in Salt Lake requesting the NIOSH 9111 method for analysis.  Our testing limit is defined by the law in MT as 1.5 ug/100 cm2.  This approach balances the concerns of all involved.  (You can read more about testing below.)

For the buyer, 6 test sites provide enough opportunity to detect meth without breaking the bank.  For the seller, if we do obtain a positive result, it is valid and the property owner can now work with a DEQ-qualified contractor to remediate their property and then have a Certificate of Fitness (COF) issued by the state.  With that COF they can now rent or sell their property with no disclosure liability.

Measurement Levels vs Health Safety Limits

The current law in the state of MT states that a property owner has a contaminated property if there are samples that measure >= 1.5 ug/100 cm2 (read 1.5 micrograms per 100 centimeters squared).  This new level was a change from the previous level of >= 0.1 ug/100 cm2.

Why the change?  Good question, when the DEQ first got involved in this arena, the standard was set at the analytic limits of the measurement technique without regard to the costs involved or the impact on the health of those exposed.

The costs to “clear” a property became prohibitive along with new data that suggested that an individual’s health would not begin to be compromised until the levels reached 1.5 ug/100 cm2.

Thus the law was brought in line with the costs associated to clean a residence to a level that is now determined as “safe.”   The standard of practice established in MT for remediating a property that has tested at or over the 1.5 ug/100 cm2 limit is cleaning by a DEQ Certified Contractor.  Here is a list provided by the DEQ:  Contractors

Montana Law & The DEQ & Clearing A Property

What do I need to do if my property is contaminated OR if my property is on the DEQ List of contaminated properties?

The only way for a property to be listed by the MT DEQ is to have had Law Enforcement report your property to the DEQ as having contained a clandestine lab.  These are the only properties that they maintain a database on.

If you own a property that has tested positive for meth at levels >= 1.5 ug/100 cm2 due to the smoking of meth on the property you do have a legal liability to disclose but will not be found on the DEQ list.

In either case, to properly “clear” your property to remove it from the DEQ list or remove your liability to disclose the process is the same.

You must use a DEQ Certified Contractor to properly clean your property.  After the cleaning is complete the next step will be to have the property tested by another DEQ Certified Contractor using the DEQ testing methodology.

Basically, there are 3 steps to clear a property:

  1. File a clearance plan with the DEQ
  2. After approval test the property using 3 samples/room plus the attic and crawlspace.
  3. Send samples to an approved analytical lab that utilizes the NIOSH 9111 method.
  4. Send the final results to the DEQ demonstrating that all test samples came back <1.5 ug/100 cm2.
  5. Receive a “Certificate of Fitness” from the DEQ
  6. So if you had a 5-room residence, that would be 15-room samples plus 3 for the attic and 3 for the crawlspace.  A total of 21 samples.  For just the sample analysis alone that will cost over $1000.00 (no labor, travel, mailing fees, etc).

Currently, the “rules” are being reworked and will change the total number of samples needed to “clear” a property.  We are hoping to see the requirement changed from 3 to 2 samples/room and the crawlspace.

This is a significant issue for all parties involved.

To read more about the effects of meth contamination see the National Library of Medicine Study: Household Contamination with Methamphetamine, Knowledge & Uncertainties  

Meth Chemical Element
Fig 1
Fig 2