Eric Wagner’s downstairs neighbor would burn incense constantly.
The scent would drift into his second-floor apartment and so would another smell. It was, as he said, something different.
Over time, he began suspecting that his neighbor was making meth. That other odor, not entirely masked by the incense, was likely the toxic fumes of a meth lab, which, for a person exposed over a long time, can cause grave health problems.
Fort Wayne police eventually raided the apartment July 24, and officers reported finding an active one-pot lab, meth and ingredients to make the drug.
The woman who lived there, Billie Sue Campbell, 46, was arrested on several felony drug charges. She was sent to a jail cell, and Wagner, because of fears that his apartment was contaminated, stayed in a hotel room for a couple of nights.
In Wagner’s apartment, testing later revealed a small amount of the chemical residue left behind by methamphetamine production, he said, but not enough for health officials to deem it uninhabitable.
Meanwhile, Campbell’s unit and a third vacant unit in the apartment house at 927 Lincoln Ave., east of Broadway, were found to have unsafe residue levels. Officials posted signs on the entrances, with the declaration: Dwelling Unfit for Human Habitation.
This year, the Fort Wayne-Allen County Health Department has been using those signs with more frequency than ever before.
As of last week, meth labs had caused 20 homes – 18 in the city and two in the county – to be listed as uninhabitable. It’s only September, and that’s already a record high, according to the health department, which has tracked the number of meth houses since 2008. The second-highest mark was in 2011 when 18 homes were contaminated with meth.
All these meth houses contain a toxic mess. The chemicals from a meth lab can settle on any surface. Carpeting has to be replaced. Walls have to be repainted.
Most of all, vents, ducts and the furnace have to be thoroughly scrubbed.
Because that’s the No. 1 thing that gets contaminated, said Joe Clark, who oversees meth house cleanups for Protechs, a Fort Wayne company.
The cost of cleaning a meth house can vary widely from $5,000 to $150,000, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Clark offered a more constrained price range, estimating that a cleaning in the Fort Wayne area typically costs $3,000 to $20,000.
Paying these cleaning bills is the responsibility of meth house owners, who are often not the meth cooks. Clark estimates that 90 percent of the cleanups he does are in rental properties. And the landlords are stuck there holding the bill, he said.
But if a landlord has insurance, the cleanup associated with a meth lab is usually covered, Clark said, and then it’s just a matter of paying the deductible.
On Saturday, the two contaminated apartments at 927 Lincoln Ave. remained sealed off. The building owner, AAA Perfection Painting, will probably have to pay $5,000 to $7,000 to clean the units, a company representative said. Those units should be livable in a few weeks, he said.
The record number of meth houses this year is consistent with the record number of meth labs that Fort Wayne police have seized.
In July, The Journal Gazette reported that police had come across a record-breaking 38 labs since the start of the year. As of last week, the tally of lab seizures in the city reached 47.
The previous record, 34, was set in 2011, according to police statistics kept since 2007 when labs began appearing in the city.
Police officials have blamed this year’s spike, in part, on the convenience of one-pot meth labs, which have taken root in Fort Wayne in recent years and make up the vast majority of labs found here. With the one-pot method, meth cooks can visit a drugstore, buy all the necessary ingredients and mix them in plastic soda bottles to make small batches of the highly addictive drug.
Police have said a second factor may be the spread of smurfing, a strategy for skirting laws that limit purchases of medicines like Sudafed, which contain pseudoephedrine, a key meth ingredient.
When police discover a meth house, they remove the lab and any meth ingredients, and by Indiana law, they notify the local health department. At the expense of the property owner, a certified contractor tests the house for meth residue, and if the levels are too high, the health department declares the home uninhabitable.
Clark said cleaning a property takes an average of three months.
The first thing we usually do is we pull up a 40-yard Dumpster and start throwing away all their contents, he said, adding that police sometimes overlook some of the contraband. We’ve found guns, knives, ammunition. We’ve found meth, we’ve found crack pipes, we’ve found marijuana.
Clark said crews that clean meth houses wear hazmat suits with respirators, and when they enter a home, they open all the windows for ventilation. In rooms that test high for meth residue, workers spray the walls, ceilings and floors with water and cleaning chemicals, he said.
Sometimes, owners will be slow to clean properties contaminated with meth, and if that happens in Fort Wayne, Neighborhood Code Enforcement can threaten with fines or demolition.
This year, the health department started posting on its website the addresses of meth houses that have not yet been decontaminated, said Dave Fiess, director of vector control and environmental services. As of last week, 18 meth houses were on the list. Twelve were deemed uninhabitable this year, and the other six were from previous years as far back as 2010.
Fiess said he works with the county recorder’s office to place notes in the property records of meth houses that alert buyers to whether a home has been decontaminated. He also maintains a database of meth houses he can search when the public asks. The data is complete only back to 2008, when law enforcement agencies began notifying the health department, in compliance with a state law passed in 2007, Fiess said.
‘Not just the house’
Long-term exposure to meth lab chemicals can cause liver and kidney damage, neurological problems and an increased risk of cancer. Less severe symptoms include headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. Exposure to such chemicals can be especially dangerous for children because of their tendency to come into contact with contaminated surfaces and put their hands in their mouths.
Luckily, there were no children found living at 927 Lincoln Ave. But Eric Wagner said the meth lab fumes might have affected his health.
Before police raided the downstairs apartment, he had been feeling weak and nauseated to the point of vomiting. Initially, he thought it was from smoking cigarettes and working long hours, but he now believes the meth lab chemicals might have been to blame.
He was told to seek medical care for himself and his dog, Colt, but a lack of money kept him from doing that, he said.
Financial limitations also led him to move back into his apartment, which had tested safe for levels of meth residue. And more than a month after the raid, he was still living there, while the two other apartments remained uninhabitable.
Wagner, who works 50 to 60 hours a week as a laborer at a grocery store warehouse, said he has lots of bills to pay but that he’s trying to save money so he and Colt can move to a new place. His motivation to leave is not only the meth lab residue, but also the neighborhood.
It’s not just the house, he said. There’s just drugs all over.