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KSL Investigates A Toxic Threat: Are Utah Laws Doing Enough To Protect Your Health?

LOGAN, Utah – There are homes all along the Wasatch Front contaminated with methamphetamine and as the KSL Investigators found out, you’d likely never know you are living in one until it was too late.

If someone smokes the drug inside of a home, the residue can stick to anything and everything it comes in contact with: Walls, ceilings, cupboards, furniture – you name it.

The state health department has made it clear, “meth use remains a large problem in Utah.”

The problem is most of the time, you cannot see the toxic residue. But the effects can be life-threatening.

Just ask 23-year-old Ashley Cox.

The Apartment

Cox moved into a new apartment in Oct. 2018.

“I just thought it was adorable,” she said. “It was a one bedroom, and it was within my price range. I wanted to live by myself.”

The apartment was inside an old building in downtown Logan. She loved the location and she loved the fact staying in the building, built in the early 1900s, was saving her money.

What she did not love was everything else that seemed to come along with it.

The Symptoms

“I started getting skin rashes and getting a lot of bruises,” Cox said. “I started going numb in my hands and my feet.”

She filmed spasms in her hand, and photos of a diagnosed staph infection on her face, neck and chest. Then, she documented a moment in her car when her hair came out in clumps.

Mentally and psychologically she said she wasn’t doing much better.

“I was having auditory hallucinations. I was hearing voices and just didn’t know what was going on,” she said.

For six months that was Cox’s life, and for six months, she didn’t have a clue what was causing it.

Until her apartment became suspect.

The Test

“I have videos and photos of these iodine crystals growing on my walls, and as I’m Googling what a meth lab looks like, I’m terrified as I’m seeing it right in my apartment,” Cox said.

Looking for proof, Cox hired several professionals who ran a series of tests throughout the apartment.

They tested the kitchen. They tested the dining room. They tested the bathroom and bedroom. And the proof she was looking for was all over the apartment. Dangerously high levels of meth.

“It aligned with all of my symptoms. I was shocked!” Cox said.

In the state of Utah, one microgram of methamphetamine per 100 square centimeters is considered dangerous.

In Cox’s apartment, the meth levels ranged from 1.2 to 3.8 micrograms.

Her home was toxic, and she didn’t have a clue before moving in.

Bear River Health Department officials shut her unit down.

Bear River Health Department officials closed her unit.

The KSL Investigators spoke with Cox’s physician, Dr. Nina Jorgensen, who called the issue of meth residue in homes “life-threatening.”

Jorgensen ran a urine test on Cox and said she found extreme levels of abnormal hydrocarbons in her system, the kind of stuff you’d see from exposure to gasoline fumes, pesticides and cleaning fluids. And the kind of stuff used to make meth.

Concerned, the doctor wrote a letter to state lawmakers, stating, “There’s got to be more rights for renters,” and asking questions like, “Who really ensures that an apartment complex is safe for renters?” and “What recourse do my patients have?”

In the letter, Jorgensen also pleaded for “corrections in a system that is seriously failing tenants.”

When asked if she believed the problem was significant enough to have laws changed, Jorgensen said, “After what I’ve been through with two patients now, I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”

That second patient lived in the apartment directly above Cox and Jorgensen said she experienced some of the very same symptoms of toxic exposure.

The Decontamination

“There are no laws requiring you have to test for meth. Period,” said Ann Atkin.

Atkin is a decontamination specialist with Meth Mob, a business specializing in decontaminating toxic homes. She has spent years spraying down, scrubbing out and cleaning up meth homes across Utah. And she’s absolutely right – there are no laws requiring landlords to run a meth test in between renters.

“There’s plenty of people that are living in meth houses that have no idea,” Atkin said. “Why would landlords be any different?”

Atkin is a decontamination specialist with Meth Mob, a business specializing in decontaminating toxic homes.

According to Utah law, the only time a property owner is required to disclose a meth issue is if that owner “has actual knowledge that the property is currently contaminated.”

This means contaminated properties could be changing owners and renters over and over again, legally exposing the people living inside to life-threatening toxins.

“People are moving in and out all the time,” Atkin said. “You’re churning through people.”

Official numbers do not exist for the number of apartments or houses contaminated with meth, because realistically nobody knows.

Even so, Atkin said the home inspectors her company works with claim 12-25% of homes actually inspected, test positive for meth.

In a statement to the KSL Investigators, Paul Smith, executive director of the Utah Apartment Association said, “Because proper tests are expensive ($300-$500), we recommend tests only be done in cases where there are actual indications that the home might be contaminated.

“The UAA does not support mandatory testing each time renters move. However, we support testing anytime there is probable cause to suspect contamination.”

The Meth Problem

Nathan LaCross, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said the number of meth labs discovered in Utah has gone down dramatically.

The latest data shows 107 clandestine labs in 2004, dropping to just one reported meth lab in 2014.

“A dramatic decrease. A dramatic decrease,” LaCross said. “Which again, doesn’t necessarily mean that use has decreased.”

The keyword is “use.”

According to the state health department’s website, “Meth use remains a large problem in Utah. Individuals seeking treatment for meth represent roughly 28% of all substance abuse treatment program admissions.”

And that “use” inside of an apartment like Ashley’s, is the one thing she knew before she moved in. The one thing likely making her sick. And the one thing she believes a change in the law would have prevented.

“I knew that something was wrong, but no one could figure it out,” Cox said.

The Lawmaker

The KSL Investigators spoke with several state lawmakers about the issue.

Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, sent a statement reading, “I am really concerned that people who are totally unaware are getting sick from the terrible and illegal acts of others. It is my plan to pursue this the rest of this session and into the Interim Sessions. I understand that checking on and cleaning up meth locations is expensive. There might be a way to limit the expense of this by at least having police reports shared with the health department so that places where arrests have been made could be cleared before new renters/owners move in. I am looking for a way to protect renters and to have a reasonable way forward for property owners to not be over-burdened. It is an issue that needs to be addressed, and I feel like legislation will be necessary to solving the problem.”

If you want to check your own home, you can purchase a “Drug Residue Detection Test” from Amazon or Wal Mart for $10-30.

You Ask, We Investigate. Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.