Family Poisoned by Their Dream Home

Chemicals from a meth lab in the house made the whole family sick.

July 27, 2009, 10:16 PM

Aug. 2, 2009— -- In 2004 Rhonda and Jason Holt found what they thought was their dream home in Winchester, Tenn.

They immediately started a family, and over the next few years had three children, but the playground in the backyard did not get much use. All three children developed mysterious respiratory illnesses before they were a year old. Anna, the middle child, was the sickest.

Rhonda Holt said one day when Anna was 5 months old she walked into the little girl's room and found she had stopped breathing.

"Her face was just white as a ghost, her lips were blue and her tongue was hanging out of the side of her mouth," Rhonda Holt said.

The girl was eventually diagnosed with bronchial myalgia and tracheal myalgia, which caused her airways to collapse whenever she coughed.

It wasn't just the children who got sick, though. Rhonda Holt developed migraines, and Jason started suffering from kidney problems.

Their medical bills reached $25,000 before the Holts got the answer.

When a neighbor told them someone had run a methamphetamine lab in their house before they lived there, the Holts said, their jaws dropped.

Ricky Davis, who lived in the home before the Holts, is in prison for making meth.

The Holts got the house tested, and the same day they got the results confirming it had been contaminated by the toxic chemicals and fumes from the meth lab, they moved out. By then, they'd been in the house nearly four years.

Meth labs are so toxic, 70 percent of first responders suffer health problems, according to a study by the National Jewish Medical and Research Center.

"The chemicals [released by cooking meth] actually are hydrochlorine gas and phosphine gas, the phosphine gas is what they actually use in a gas chamber for executions," said Danny Mantooth, a drug investigator in Tennessee.

The chemicals get into carpeting, air ducts, even dry wall. So the Holts have to virtually gut the house and start all over. The cleanup will cost nearly $80,000, and the Holts are stuck with the bill. There is no help from the government.

Rhonda and Jason Holt are both working two jobs to pay for the cleanup, but still they don't expect to be able to move back into their house until sometime next year.

Even though most states have passed laws trying to limit access to some of the key drugs used to make meth, lab busts are on the rise nationwide. They were up 14 percent last year, with nearly 6,800.

The problem for home buyers is that only 19 states have laws requiring a seller to disclose that a house was once a meth lab, and only Colorado provides cleanup money to people who find they have bought a house formerly used as a meth lab.

Federal statistics show there are tens of thousands of former meth houses in the United States. They are often left abandoned because cleanup is too expensive.

Shortly after Holts moved in with Jason's parents in their three-bedroom home. It's crowded -- with Rhonda sharing a bed with the two oldest children in one room, 1-year-old Makenzie in her crib in another room, and Jason sleeping on the couch.

"A lot of times instead of sleeping in a bed like you normally would, we sleep sideways so we have more room," Rhonda Holt said.

Space is not their concern these days, the Holts said. They just want their kids to have clean air to breathe.

Since the family moved out of the house, Anna's health has improved enough that she no longer has to go to the doctor so often. Before, she sometimes had to go every day.

But she is still not 100 percent, and has to use a nebulizer every six hours, Rachel Holt said. She relapsed in June and went back to the hospital briefly.

Anna's pulmonologist said the main worry now is the long-term effects. Even though she is 2 years old, Anna is the same size as her 1-year-old sister Makenzie. The doctor believes the steroids she had to take stunted her growth, the Holts said.

The long-term effect of the chemicals on their health is still unknown, but there is reason for concern. According to the Partnership for a Drug Free America, there is "scientific evidence from animal and human toxicity studies that shows the chemicals used to manufacture meth can cause a range of health effects include cancer, damage to the brain, liver and kidneys, birth defects, and reproductive problems, such as miscarriages."

"It's hard. It's really hard," Rhonda said. "You start out hopes and dreams of this wonderful life raising a wonderful family, and then what you've purchased to raise your family in almost kills your children."

Their house and its past continue to make them question their future.

The Holts' church has set up a donation account for people who would like to help, at Citizens Community Bank, 1418 Dinah Shore Blvd., Winchester, TN 37398. The phone number is 931-967-3342.

The Justice Department has set up a Web site to help people identify the signs of an active meth lab.

And the Web site has a lot of useful information for home buyers or renters to help them avoid moving into a home or apartment that formerly housed a meth lab.