US/World

Family Becomes Violently Ill After Accidentally Buying Home That Used to Be a Meth Lab

house sold
The Hankins' home on 2427 Radcliffe had formerly been a house used to cook methamphetamine. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The home was in need of fresh paint and some cosmetic fixes, but the Hankins family saw its potential. At $36,000, the house was perfect for a young family trying to make ends meet in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

"We said, 'It needs a little bit of love, but it's got good bones,'" Jonathan Hankins said. "We just had no idea that those bones were poisonous."

But days after settling in last summer, the Hankins found the move taking a toll on its health. Beth Hankins, an emergency room nurse, began suffering from respiratory problems. Jonathan Hankins suffered from migraine-like headaches and nosebleeds. Three weeks into their stay, their 2-year-old son Ezra Hankins developed mouth sores so bad that it hurt him to drink water.

Just as they were about to schedule doctor's appointments, a neighbor shared with them the bad news. Their home on 2427 Radcliffe had formerly been a house used to cook methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine, an illegal drug in the United States, is a white odorless powder that is easily dissolved in water or alcohol. It is taken orally, by injection, or by smoking. It also can be snorted. The drug is extremely dangerous to cook and to take; 15 percent of meth labs are destroyed through explosions or fires.

The family ordered a $50 meth-testing kit and ordered the lab to expedite the results. The laboratory reported that the house was contaminated at a level 80 percent higher than what is considered legal by the Oregon Health Authority.

The family quickly moved to a rental home. They currently are still paying rent and their mortgage. And, since decontaminating a meth house can run upwards of $15,000, Jonathan Hankins says that he is currently being quoted a clean-up cost that is more than the house is worth.

Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored foreclosure company, warned the family about detecting risks like asbestos and lead paint. But the Hankins family says that no one warned them about drug activity. Freddie Mac says that is because no one knew about it.

The family, who was buying the home as is, chose to cut costs and to skip the traditional health inspection, which would have only caught superficial damage like paint chips.

Methamphetamine contamination, on the other hand, is often invisible. Joe Mazzuca, from Meth Lab Cleanup, a company that specializes in drug lab testing, training and clean-up, estimates that there are 2.5 million homes in the U.S. that are contaminated by meth. Mazzuca says that the company averages a call once every five minutes. Mazzuca told the story of one family from Michigan, which has no disclosure laws. The family had unknowingly purchased a meth-contaminated home; the call came after the father had "just buried his 14-year-old daughter after living in it for two years".

Mazzuca believes that as few as 1 in 10 meth labs are busted. He advises home-shoppers to talk to the property's neighbors, contact the local health department, test the property for chemicals, and to check the DEA's National Clandestine Laboratory Register.

But for Jonathan Hankins, he says that Mazzuca's words of wisdom are too little, too late. His calls to Freddie Mac have gone unanswered and he is angry that this whole ordeal could have been avoided by a $50 kit purchased by the foreclosure firm. Unfortunately though, attorneys have told the family that the "as-is" clause leaves them with little legal recourse.

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