A new report by the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman released this week suggests that the recently revised guidelines for decontamination of properties where methamphetamine has been smoked are too strict.

Those standards were published by Standards New Zealand, after consultation with a wide range of experts, just last year (NZS8510:2017). Media have described the report as a "bombshell" and "myth-busting". There has been an immediate reaction – including from Government, property industry participants and decontamination experts.

Key findings

We read the key findings in the report as follows:

  • There has been an overly cautious (and costly) approach to decontaminating properties where methamphetamine has been smoked, and this approach is out of step with what's happening in other jurisdictions.
  • There is no published evidence which shows that levels resulting from third-hand exposure to methamphetamine smoking residues on household surfaces leads to adverse health effects.
  • Consequently the current "guideline" level triggering decontamination (1.5µg/100cm²) is too low, and should be 15µg/100cm².
  • Where methamphetamine has been manufactured or heavily used, the present guideline level (1.5µg/100cm²) remains appropriate.

The Government's reaction has been swift. Housing Minister Phil Twyford has immediately ordered hundreds of Housing New Zealand homes to be re-tenanted. Housing New Zealand has amended its decontamination policy, endorsing Sir Peter Gluckman's recommendations. An inquiry into Standards NZ has been signalled.

Property industry participants (including the New Zealand Property Investors' Federation, REINZ and Resultz Group) are reporting frustration at landlords having invested thousands of dollars in decontamination where that was not necessary. But at least one decontamination services provider is challenging the robustness of the report, and citing international evidence that the current New Zealand Standard is appropriate.

Resulting confusion

It is evident from current media reporting that there is the potential for some confusion to be created in people's minds by the signalled government policy, the applicable standards, and industry practice. Various industries and sectors stand to be affected, including the residential and commercial property markets, advisers who operate in those markets and the insurance sector. A number of immediate questions will arise for these sectors:

  • When should properties be tested for methamphetamine contamination?
  • What decontamination is actually required and to what standard? Is it worth the investment?
  • What should vendors and real estate agents being telling potential purchasers?
  • What should landlords be telling tenants?
  • What are the health and safety implications on property owners where properties are contaminated?

Amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act are currently progressing through Parliament (with the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill (No 2) now due for its second reading). MBIE recommended to the Select Committee that regulations should prescribe the appropriate standard for decontamination. Again it is not clear what decontamination standard will be applied – Sir Peter Gluckman's or the NZ Standard?

What is clear from Sir Peter Gluckman's report is that there are complex issues at play here. We will be considering the legal implications of the report over the coming weeks in a series of further publications. Those in the commercial and residential property markets, property professionals, insurers and others with an interest in these issues should stay tuned.

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