Crime

What Happens When a Denver Home Becomes Contaminated With Meth?

Meth contamination can be a nightmare for homeowners.
Meth contamination can be a nightmare for homeowners. Courtesy of Crystal Hoang Gonzales
Not long after local landlord Jay Cismaru purchased an apartment in a building on West Hampden Avenue near South Sheridan Boulevard, he was expecting the current tenant to move out and a new one to move in. But his plans were completely upended on November 4, when the Denver Police Department — including SWAT officers — executed a search warrant at the place.

The tenant had two outstanding warrants for his arrest, according to the DPD, which documented the incident in a tweet.

"After attempting to contact the person, SWAT officers were outside the residence and heard gunshots," the DPD wrote. "The officers entered the apartment and found the suspect with a suspected self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was transported to an area hospital in critical condition."

The man wound up dying from the wound, and DPD says it's still investigating the incident.

The following day, Cismaru went to the apartment to start cleaning up. There was quite a mess, including damage from tear gas that had been fired in. "The tear gas was so strong that your eyes would be crying. We could only work five minutes at a time," Cismaru says. But that turned out to be a minor problem compared to what was coming next.

A day later, Cismaru returned to the apartment to find a sign posted by the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment stating that the unit was uninhabitable because of meth contamination, which can cause health issues for occupants.

"I own over three dozen apartments. I will rent to felons," says Cismaru. "I’m a libertarian. I don’t care if you smoke weed. Whatever you do is what you do. You pay the rent on time and keep the place clean, I'm happy." Cismaru is certain that he's rented to people in the past who were using meth, and it turns out that they left behind invisible contaminants.
Cleaners have to wear hazmat suits and respirators.
Courtesy of Crystal Hoang Gonzales
Inspectors found evidence of meth use in the apartment, meaning the property was automatically deemed contaminated by DDPHE.

"The process for remediating a meth-affected property varies. Not every home is the same, and contaminant levels are dependent upon the degree of meth use, manufacturing, and/or processing," says Laura Dixon, communications manager for the Hazardous Materials & Waste Management Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment. "However, the process generally begins with a preliminary assessment, conducted by a certified consultant."

Cismaru was one of many Denver homeowners in 2022 who had to deal with meth contamination, as the DDPHE issued 74 letters of meth contamination to property owners that year. Descriptions of meth contamination also pop up on real estate websites for homes that are significantly marked down in price, accompanied by an explanation that the property is contaminated with meth. Other times, new homeowners discover that the house they just bought is contaminated with meth — and that they are stuck with the remediation requirements and costs.

In December, the Boulder Public Library shut down its main branch because of meth contamination in the bathroom, reopening the branch in early January. And on January 10, RTD announced that it was closing bathrooms in the Downtown Boulder Station for the same reason. A day later, Englewood announced that it would have to close its public library, a municipal building lobby and bathrooms in the city's Civic Center for meth contamination.

So Cismaru wasn't alone in his plight, a situation that can be caused either by meth being smoked or cooked. But it was still a headache.

After finding his apartment effectively quarantined, Cismaru hired a certified meth tester, which cost him $1,500. The tests that Cismaru's apartment had to pass going forward had a threshold of 0.5 micrograms of meth per 100 square centimeters. And that first test by the professional meth tester came back above that limit.

Cismaru then had to hire a professional cleaner to decontaminate his apartment.

"Meth leaves a chemical compound residue that is like tar, but it’s like a clear substance on your walls. We are kind of doing our part, our due diligence, but at the same time, we can’t see how low the levels go," says Crystal Hoang Gonzales of Cair Environmental, the Lakewood-based company that Cismaru hired for the remediation work.

Hoang Gonzales notes that calls for meth cleanups have increased significantly over the past five years. And each cleanup is usually a multi-stage, multi-day process.

She and her colleagues must wear protective suits and respirators, as if they were characters from Breaking Bad. That's because inhaling fumes in meth-affected properties can be harmful.

"Over time, in a meth-affected property, the chemicals start to leak from the products. It comes through the drywall. It can be quite dangerous, especially for younger children and for elderly people and infants," Hoang Gonzales says.
Jay Cismaru's apartment needed multiple cleanups to get rid of the meth contamination.
Courtesy of Crystal Hoang Gonzales
And the metro Denver native has seen some wild stuff on the job. For example, in one home, she cleaned out a crawl space that the tenant had created an access point to in order to smoke meth inside.

In another situation, Hoang Gonzales cleaned a unit in Colorado Springs that had been vacant until squatters came and began living in the apartment, where they smoked meth.

"It was completely contaminated," she says.

Sometimes, people who smoke meth believe that a home's ventilation system will guide the toxic fumes from the drug outside of the unit.

But that just contaminates the HVAC system.

"If the HVAC is contaminated, which 90 percent of the time is happening, it has to be completely removed. You’re not going to be able to clean it," Hoang Gonzales says.

After the first remediation of Cismaru's apartment, another meth test reported levels over the state limit, so he had to bring back the cleaners from Cair Environmental again. This went on to the tune of four total meth tests by the testing company, including one that actually showed samples higher than before. These tests featured samples from all over the apartment, including various locations in the bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom, closet and hallway.

"When you wash surfaces that have been previously painted over, the concentrated layers go up rather than go down," Hoang Gonzales notes.

Eventually, Cismaru decided to throw away his air conditioning system, in addition to other appliances and cabinets in the apartment. "You can't clean meth out of wood," Cismaru notes, with Hoang Gonzales adding, "Wood doors, hollow core doors, cabinets. It is very hard to clean those surfaces." Finally, after the fourth test, samples from Cismaru's apartment came in below the state meth limit, giving him the right to rent the apartment once again.

In total, Cismaru wound up spending over $35,000 on the tests, cleanups and new cabinets and appliances.

Cismaru spoke highly of the companies that he employed for the testing and cleanups, but he feels like Colorado's rules around meth contamination aren't right.

"There’s something not right about it. I can’t put it into words," Cismaru says. "It just seems like it’s some kind of a scam."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.

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