Here are questions to ask a decontamination contractor to help you decide if they are the right contractor for you.
1. How long has your company been in business? How many decontaminations have you done?
If they are just starting out, an explanation of how they learned to decontaminate is important. Some contractors start their business without knowing how to decontaminate.
2. Do you subcontract any work?
If they subcontract their work, you might find a lower price working directly with the subcontractor. If they subcontract but in advertising claim as theirs the subcontracted decontaminations, ask them why. There is a difference between a “broker” and a “contractor”. If I were a car repair broker and subcontracted all repairs, it would not be honest of me to claim I repaired all the cars. The same is true for decontamination brokers and decontamination contractors.
3. Do you guarantee your work? What guarantees do you offer?
Dwellings are difficult to decontaminate and errors can happen. A contract with a guarantee is fair to the property owner and the contractor. Some contractors only give a written guarantee if you ask for it. There is nothing wrong with that, just ask for one. Regarding decontamination contractors that won’t guarantee their work; if the contractor doesn’t trust his work enough to guarantee it, you shouldn’t trust it either. I have seen many “partial” decontaminations. “Partial” is a polite way of saying “phoney” - Get a guarantee!
4. Where did you learn to decontaminate? (If they attended a training course,) How long was the course, who taught it and what were their qualifications?
One week or, heaven forbid, two or three days is not enough time to learn how to decontaminate. Decontamination is not chemistry or physics although it incorporates information from those sciences. Industrial hygienists are not taught how to decontaminate in industrial hygiene school. Decontamination is a science of its own, cannot be learned in a short period of time, and is too risky to be learned in people’s homes by trial-and-error. In Utah, a person can read the state’s Decontamination Specialist Study Guide, pass the certification test and be certified to inspect, test and decontaminate meth-contaminated homes without actually knowing how to inspect, test or decontaminate.
5. What kind of a compound is methamphetamine and what is it made of?
Methamphetamine is a hydrocarbon derivative and consists of 10 atoms of carbon, 15 atoms of hydrogen and 1 atom of nitrogen (C10H15N). There are three common methods used to make it. The P-2-P (Biker) Method, Amalgam (Nazi) Method and Red Phosphorus (Red-P or HI) Method. The Biker method uses a process called reductive amination to make methamphetamine from phenol-2-propanone. The Biker Method produces dextro-methamphetamine and levo-methamphetamine. Dextro methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant and is the type of methamphetamine that gives meth users their desired "high". Levo methamphetamine is also a controlled substanc but is not a drug-of-abuse. It won't make someone "high". The other two methods convert ephedrine (pseudoephedrine) into methamphetamine. Ephedrine consistes of 10 atoms of carbon, 15 atoms of hydrogen, one atom of nitrogen and one atom of oxygen (C10H15NO). Meth cooks remove oxygen atoms from the ephedrine molecules. What is left behind is dextro-methamphetamine.
6. Did you learn to decontaminate methamphetamine? What other chemicals did you learn to decontaminate? Have you ever decontaminated them? Have you ever tested for them?
If your contractor doesn’t know how to decontaminate anything but methamphetamine, they do not know how to decontaminate a meth lab. There are other chemicals in meth labs, many more hazardous than methamphetamine. If a contractor says they have decontaminated certain chemicals but never tested for them, then they assume they have decontaminated them but really don’t know for sure.
7. What are the most hazardous chemical residues left in meth labs? Have you ever tested for them?
If they say methamphetamine is the most hazardous residue, tell them good bye. They don’t know what they are talking about or they are not being honest. Another red flag is waving if they have never tested for the most hazardous residues. Novice decontamination contractors often focus only on methamphetamine. An educated contractor will, at a minimum, list the most hazardous chemicals which are iodine and red phosphorus. The iodine vapor generated by storing iodine and by cooking meth will accumulate on materials. Accumulations of iodine and red phosphorous are also found where meth formula liquid was spilled or where the lab experienced a vessel burst. To understand what a vessel burst is, picture placing an unopened can of tomato soup on a hot stove. Eventually pressure in the can becomes too much to be contained and the can bursts throwing soup everywhere. With the Red Phosphorus Method, the reaction vessel can develop too much pressure and burst like the can of soup. Heat and moisture, including high humidity, cause iodine to off-gas elemental iodine and red phosphorus to off-gas phosphine.
8. How hazardous is methamphetamine?
This question will give you a chance to know how much the contractor knows and possibly how honest he is. Under certain conditions methamphetamine can be hazardous. The most susceptible people are babies below 2 years of age. Two studies, one by the State of Colorado in 2005 and another by the State of California in 2006, provide excellent assessments of methamphetamine hazards in dwellings. Both studies developed a risk-based advisory standard for meth residues on indoor surfaces. The Colorado advisory standard is 0.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters and the California advisory standard is 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters. Both studies used the same model: a six-month-old baby, wearing only a diaper, staying the entire day on a meth-contaminated carpet.
Both studies sought to determine what test result (wipe test) of a 100 square centimeter area indicates an exposure to the baby that would not cause any physiological effect. In both studies, the total amount was divided by a safety factor of 300 which is consistent with safety factors used by toxicologists. It is reasonable to expect where test measurements in a dwelling do not exceed 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters, no person in the dwelling will ingest or absorb enough methamphetamine to have any physiological effect. States that use a standard less than the Colorado standard of 0.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters are not using a health-based standard.
If the contractor tells you some states use a 0.1 microgram standard because no one really knows how hazardous long-term exposures to low levels of methamphetamine is, tell the contractor good bye. The contractor is either uninformed or less than honest. Some states still use a non-health-based standard such as 0.1 micrograms per 100 square centimeters because analytical laboratories can reliably test methamphetamine samples down to 0.1 micrograms. It has nothing to do with health. Medical professionals know what chronic (long-term) exposures to methamphetamine residue below the health-based standard does to people. Nothing!
As further proof that medical professionals know the hazards of chronic exposures to methamphetamine, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved methamphetamine as a prescription for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD or ADHD). If someone claims a pharmaceutical manufacturer can get authorization from the FDA without a mountain of paperwork, including studies of hazards, they don’t know what they are talking about. Beginning at the age of 6, a child can receive 25 milligrams of methamphetamine per day. That is 25 one-thousandths of a gram per day. The Utah standard, 1.0 micrograms, is equal to 1 one-millionth of a gram.
9. Are iodine vapor or phosphine gas ever found in former meth labs? If iodine vapor or phosphine is in the air, what concentrations are not hazardous?
Iodine and phosphine may be found in former meth labs where the Red Phosphorus Method was used or the materials were stored. Airborne iodine should not exceed 0.1 parts per million and airborne phosphine should not exceed 0.3 parts per million.
10. Do you decontaminate by washing? (If no) What decontamination methods do you use? (If yes) How will you decontaminate chemicals that are soaked into unpainted materials or on surfaces beneath the paint? Do you get the walls and other materials wet during decontamination? (If yes,) How do you make sure you will not grow bacteria and mold?
In termite control, wet wood absorbs termiticide deeper than dry wood. If the contractor gets wood wet, how will they prevent contaminants from going deeper into the wood? Some contractors claim they decontaminate with steam. If you own a steamer, place your hand about one foot away and feel how hot the steam is. It feels cool. Steam will not decompose methamphetamine and other hazardous materials but it can cause residues to be absorbed deeper in porous materials. Some species of bacteria replicate every 8 to 10 minutes. Mold usually takes a lot longer but will grow where materials stay wet for an extended time. To decontaminate does not mean to absorb hazardous materials deeper into the building or to trade chemical hazards for microbiological hazards. The decontamination contractor should have a plan to avoid making conditions worse.
11. If red phosphorus or volatile species of iodine are present but not visible, will your decontaminating protocols decontaminate them? (If yes,) “How?”
Even if your property was contaminated by someone smoking meth and not a meth lab, this question is still valuable. You are trying to determine if you are speaking with a skilled decontaminator. If the only chemical they know how to decontaminate is methamphetamine, you are talking to a novice. Consider it suspicious if they said they know how to decontaminate iodine and red phosphorus but they can’t explain how. If they say they decontaminate it by washing it off, ask them how they will prevent the iodine and red phosphorus from soaking deeper into materials. If they say they remove the materials, ask them what they would do if the iodine and red phosphorus was found in a basement on a foundation wall. Iodine and red phosphorus cannot be encapsulated and will off gas into the dwelling if not decontaminated.
12. What happens if you have difficulty decontaminating?
This is a very important question. Some decontamination contractors will try to wash off residues. If they can’t, they will gut the house to the framing. Replacing all the sheetrock, floors, cabinets, furnace, ducts, etc. will cost you a small fortune.
13. If you have to do extra testing or work, who pays for it?
Another way to express this question is, “Am I paying for competence or incompetence?” Have you ever had the experience where you take your car to a mechanic, he diagnosis the problem and replaces an expensive part but you find the car is not fixed when you pick it up. If you had this experience, then you paid for incompetence. If the decontamination contractor wants you to pay for his unsuccessful decontamination attempts and for all the re-tests, you may end up paying for incompetence. Make it clear, you want a “guaranteed pass” and all extra work and extra tests are at the contractor’s expense.
14. What materials and items do you plan on discarding? Is there a chance you may wish to remove and discard building materials such as sheetrock, floors, cabinets, ducts, etc. If you need to throw away building materials to decontaminate, how will you decontaminate the building materials that are not thrown away?
Among decontamination professionals, the contractors who decontaminate by demolition are considered to be people who do not understand the science of decontamination. Picture in your mind a meth lab in an unfinished basement where iodine and red phosphorus stains cover the concrete floor and foundation wall. The most contaminated area in the house is the basement. The contractors who decontaminate by demolition will remove the sheetrock and other items throughout the house but not remove the concrete floor and foundation. In other words, they remove the least contaminated materials and leave the most contaminated materials. What do they do to the most contaminated materials? If they plan to paint over them or ignore them, they do not plan to decontaminated the property.
15. If you decontaminate by demolition, will you get a building permit? Will you test for asbestos? Will you test for lead-base-paint?
If the contractor is going to demolish the interior of your home, check with your city or county building department to see if a permit is needed. The asbestos laws of your state, like Utah, likely require sheetrock, linoleum, vinyl, ceiling texture, ceiling tile, blow-in insulation, old duct tape, mastic, and other materials that may contain asbestos, to be tested before removal. If your home was built before 1978, painted materials must be tested for lead-based paint before removal. I If your contractor decontaminates by demolition but doesn't test for asbestos and lead-based paint, have the property independently tested.
16. When you are finished decontaminating, would you object if I had someone independent test the property instead of you or at the same time as your final tests? What will happen if I test the property after you are finished and the tests don’t pass?
The way the decontamination contractor knows decontamination is successful is by testing. Expect the contractor to test prior to someone else testing. From time-to-time, I am asked to inspect and test a contractor’s work to determine why a previously decontaminated property does not pass subsequent tests. Too often, I find the property was never decontaminated. Before you sign the contract, you want the contractor to expect you will have the property inspected and tested to confirm decontamination. Inspections and tests by a home inspector or environmental testing company are usually preferred but not always. Some decontamination contractors claim home inspectors don’t know how to test for methamphetamine or the lab they use is not competent. I have seen thousands of tests. The home inspectors are just as competent as anyone else. I teach a class on how to test for methamphetamine. Most of the students are home inspectors. To pass the course, they must demonstrate their ability to collect a sample perfectly. The passing test score is 100%. To become a certified decontamination specialist in Utah I was asked several questions about testing but I could have answered all the testing questions incorrectly and still be certified as long as I scored 80% on the exam. About laboratories not analyzing samples correctly, that claim was started by a decontamination contractor whose project didn’t pass subsequent tests. A Federal grant was used to test all laboratories in the United States that analyze methamphetamine. Every lab passed.
17. Will you be painting? Is it possible to encapsulate methamphetamine by painting over it? Is it legal?
I am not an attorney so consider this answer my non-lawyer opinion. Encapsulating methamphetamine and meth lab residues is not an accepted decontamination method in Utah (see Utah Administrative Code R392-600). Where the owner knows methamphetamine residue is above the Utah standard of 1.0 micrograms per 100 square centimeters, Utah Code Annotated 57-27-201 (Utah law) requires the owner to disclose the presence of methamphetamine residue prior to selling or renting real property. Where methamphetamine residue above the Utah standard is encapsulated, the owner still knows the residue is there even if subsequent tests pass. The law allows for civil consequences. Also, the renting or selling of contaminated property without the mandatory disclosure may be considered a criminal offense under Utah Code Annotated 76-10-1801, Communications Fraud. The law defines Communications Fraud as follows: “Any person who has devised any scheme or artifice to defraud another or to obtain from another money, property, or anything of value by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, promises, or material omissions, and who communicates directly or indirectly with any person by any means for the purpose of executing or concealing the scheme or artifice…”
18. Do you have insurance?
Here is another of my non-lawyer opinions. Liability insurance is important but don’t forget workers compensation insurance. If the decontamination contractor doesn’t have workers compensation insurance, you as the property owner could be charged for an injured worker’s medical bills and missed work. The owner of the company needs worker’s compensation insurance too unless the owner gives you a Workers Compensation Insurance Waiver. If you use the waiver, be sure to have it checked by an attorney.
The following information comes from the Utah Labor Commission website (http://laborcommission.utah.gov/FAQ/workers_comp_insurance_waivers.html).
In Utah, employers are required to provide workers' compensation coverage to its employees. Workers' compensation coverage pays for the medical costs and a portion of the lost wages of an employee injured while working on behalf of their employer.
In Utah, certain individuals are allowed to waive their rights to workers' compensation coverage by obtaining a Workers' Compensation Coverage Waiver (WCCW). The following entity categories may be eligible for the waiver:
• Sole Proprietorships with no employee other than the owner.
• Partnerships with no employee other than the partners. Limited Liability Companies are considered Partnerships and, as such, the members of an LLC may be eligible for a waiver. Limited Liability Companies that are required to be licensed under Utah law Title 58-Chapter 55, Utah Construction Trades Licensing Act, are required to procure and maintain workers’ compensation coverage for its members and are not eligible for a waiver as stated in S.B. 35 of the 2011 Utah General Legislative Session.
• Director and/or officers of a corporation.
• Independent Contractors with no employees who fall into any of the above categories.
An independent contractor is defined as:
A person engaged in the performance of any work for another whom, while so engaged, is:
1. Independent of the employer in all that pertains to the execution of the work;
2. Not subject to the routine rule or control of the employer;
3. Engaged only in the performance of a definite job or piece of work; and
4. Subordinate to the employer only in effecting a result in accordance with the employer's design.
19. Will you use a strong oxidizer to decontaminate? If yes, How will you prevent building materials from producing formaldehyde? Have you ever tested for formaldehyde?
Strong oxidizers can cause building materials to produce and off-gas formaldehyde. “Strong oxidizers” include high concentrations of ozone, chlorine dioxide and hydrogen peroxide. Formaldehyde is a strong irritant and suspected carcinogen (cancer-causing chemical). The use of strong oxidizers in dwellings and other buildings should always be followed with tests for airborne formaldehyde.
20. How will you clean and decontaminate inside the furnace and ducts? How will you clean and decontaminate the furnace blower? (If you have central air conditioning,) How will you clean and decontaminate the condenser (cooling) coils? Do you use a dry or wet method to clean the furnace and ducts? Will the furnace be operated while you are decontaminating? Will you operate the furnace prior to testing? Will the furnace still work when you are finished?
After decontamination, put your digital camera in the ducts and take pictures. Make sure they decontaminated inside the ducts. Look at the plenums (the rectangular sheetmetal boxes) to see that they have been opened to facilitate cleaning. Proper decontamination includes running the furnace blower before final testing. It is my experience, many decontamination contractors and health department professionals don’t know how to decontaminate ducts. The Utah Administrative Code instructs decontamination contractors to clean the ducts using the typical duct-cleaning-company method. That is: attach an air filtration device to the furnace or plenum, create negative air pressure, break dust loose inside ducts using an agitation device, collect dust in the air filtration device, seal the duct openings (boots) and keep them sealed while decontaminating the dwelling (building).
Unfortunately, the dry duct-cleaning method does not remove all dust from the ducts. When the furnace blower is turned on, dust is blown throughout the building. The air can be dirtier than before duct cleaning. If meth residue is on the dust, subsequent tests can detect residue. Also, experience teaches us that cleaning dust from the ducts does not decontaminate the methamphetamine residue adhered to duct surfaces. I have seen where contractors used one protocol to clean the inner ducts and another protocol to clean easily-reached surfaces where they tested. If a different protocol was used, the tests do not validate decontamination throughout the furnace and duct (HVAC) system.
21. Will decontaminating cause rust or corrode any metal in the house?
Some decontamination contractors use 12% swimming pool chlorine to decontaminate. The “cure” is worse than the disease! Damage to metal including furnace, ducts, window frames, electrical wiring, light fixtures, door locks, etc. are only part of the consequences. Eventually the free-radical chlorine will dissipate but occupying the dwelling too soon can cause respiratory distress and elevated chlorine levels (hypochlorous acid) in the blood.
22. How do you decontaminate cabinet drawers and light fixtures?
These are two areas often ignored by decontamination contractors. The drawers cannot be decontaminated if they are not removed from the cabinets. The same thing is true for enclosed light fixtures. If you open a drawer after decontamination and it still has trash in it, you did not get a complete decontamination from the contractor.
23. Do your business vehicles or trailers have your business name or any other information on them that inform the neighbors what you are doing? What do you say to neighbors or other people who ask what you are doing?
I hear these questions all the time. Many people do not want neighbors to know the property is contaminated. You may also wish to ask what the contractor will tell neighbors if they ask why they are there.
24. Have you ever been arrested? If yes, What for? Were you convicted? Have any of your employees ever been arrested? If yes, What for? Were they convicted?
If you think a certified or licensed decontamination contractor can’t have an arrest record, you are wrong. In one situation, a young man was arrested for a methamphetamine offense and the property owner, his dad, got stuck with a contaminated property. To teach the son a lesson, Dad arranged for him to become a certified decontamination specialist and told the son he had to decontaminate the property. Did the son’s drug habit prevent his certification by the state? No!
25. Has your company or anyone at the company been cited, disciplined or threatened with disciplinary measures because of allegedly violating laws or rules regarding meth testing or meth decontamination?
Make sure you are using a contractor that complies with the laws and rules.
© Copyright, 2013, Certified Decontamination, Michael L. Rowzee, West Jordan Utah. All rights reserved. Contact the owner for written authorization to copy.