The headaches, muscle aches and breathing problems began shortly after she moved in, but Julie McCoy Sabatino was slow to blame her house for making her sick.
She was shocked to realize she should: Methamphetamines had been produced in the house, just months before she bought it.
Several years after the state began requiring counties to maintain records, Indianas accounting of its meth houses remains patchwork and incomplete.
And because those public records go back only a couple of years in a state where meth has been a major problem for more than a decade, they are no help to people like McCoy Sabatino.
Indiana has a problem, she said. Indiana doesnt care.
One method of producing the highly addictive stimulant methamphetamine is to cook it in makeshift labs, using a volatile cocktail of chemicals that produces noxious fumes. Chemical and drug residue – considered hazardous materials – used in meth labs can infiltrate drains and ventilation systems and seep into any porous surface, such as walls, carpets and furniture.
The same state law that in 2005 regulated the sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine – putting the common decongestant medications behind pharmacy counters – also required law enforcement agencies that take down meth labs to report the addresses and some details to county health departments.
Its uncertain how many such houses exist.
The federal Drug Enforcement Agency keeps a partial list on its Web site. Its an oversimplification to say the number of addresses on the partial list would be equal to the number of meth labs reported.
Labs can be in outbuildings, vehicles, forests and fields. The labs have become more mobile, especially last year, because of a new method of production using small bottles that create less noticeable fumes. A Kosciusko County man was arrested for carrying one in a backpack.
The Indiana State Police recorded 228 meth labs were found in 2008 in 11 northeast Indiana counties, and many of those were not in homes.
But the Drug Enforcement Agencys database reports only 45 addresses where meth labs were found in those counties.
Even if some of the meth labs were outside of homes, Steuben County Deputy Tim Troyer, who has spent years investigating drug crimes in northeast Indiana, said he believes the DEAs tally is low.
And because its not frequently updated – the most recent update was in March, according to the Web site – it doesnt help homebuyers, sellers or renters looking for real-time information, Troyer said.
‘Neat old house’
McCoy Sabatino had some information when she bought her home at 501 S. Main St. in Churubusco in 2006. But in retrospect, it wasnt enough.
Buyers are aware that there may have been meth on property, reads the handwritten note on the real estate foreclosure form.
Thats all McCoy Sabatino, in the midst of a messy divorce, knew. With limited financial resources and desperate for a place to live with her 10-year-old son, she bought the house for $58,000.
And despite her challenging circumstances, she was proud and excited to own a home.
It was just a really neat old house, McCoy Sabatino said.
But she and her son began having respiratory problems and mysterious aches almost as soon as they moved in. Within two months, her son required a nebulizer – a medicated inhaler – to ease his asthma.
She began researching the history of the house and said she had to show proof of ownership to the Whitley County Health Department before she could see the departments files on the property.
Correspondence between the homes previous owners and the department explain that the county could only offer suggestions for how the home should be cleaned and had no way to ensure proper decontamination.
The previous owner – who had rented out the home to tenants who were arrested in connection with producing meth – said she had washed the walls of the home with bleach and other cleaners six times in an effort to properly clean it, according to a copy of the correspondence provided by McCoy Sabatino.
That probably wasnt enough, according to federal guidelines on meth-lab cleanup recently issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The drug can seep into countertops and drywall. Most carpeting should probably be replaced. The remaining surfaces should be professionally tested for contamination, according to the guidelines.
All this can come at wildly variable cost to the homeowner – from $5,000 to $150,000, the EPA report said. Property owners, even those not cooking meth themselves, typically foot the bill.
McCoy Sabatino said the health effects from living with meths ghosts forced her to quit her factory job and apply for disability benefits. She was compelled to send her story to newspapers and TV stations in an effort to get Indiana to take action, she said.
Three years after she bought the home, its gone into foreclosure. McCoy Sabatino said she couldnt afford payments because of her familys medical bills and her job loss. She said she doesnt see the point in paying on a house shes come to see as a death trap.
She chokes up when she recalls how excited she was to buy the home.
I worked really hard to get my time in, she said. I worked really, really hard to get there, and I lost everything I had.
Regulations since McCoy Sabatinos home was contaminated in 2005 mean counties can do more to address the problem – or at least what they can with tight budgets and no teeth for enforcement.
When counties receive reports a meth lab was found, the common practice is to send a letter to homeowners with recommendations for cleanup.
Allen County asks for a certificate of decontamination from a certified inspector that is kept on file at the health department along with reports on where labs are found.
Dave Fiess, the countys director of vector control and environmental services, said he has compiled the state polices reports into a rough digital database that he can search when the public asks.
But like most counties, the data is complete only through 2007, when the state established procedures for the counties, with only a few entries before that date.
Other county health departments said their records remain on paper and require a manual search by interested homebuyers or real estate agents.
DeKalb County health inspector Bernie Sukala said he receives those requests occasionally. But even as the piles of paper grow with each year, Sukala said the county has no manpower or time to digitize the records.
You do the best you can, is what it amounts to, he said. In these small rural counties, you do the best you can.