Hard News by Russell Brown


Exporting panic and greed: the meth-testing industry crossing the Tasman

After the report of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor put to rest the disastrous and costly moral panic around supposed "methamphetamine contamination" nearly a year ago, the industry that had grown around unfounded claims about meth residues and health had a problem.

Its business hasn't wholly disappeared, but it has very sharply shrunk. And some of the figures in the industry have ventured into new territory. That is, Australia, where the practice of environmental testing is still barely regulated and the news media is as credulous on the matter as ours used to be.

It really is like watching a replay: people who have been convinced they have been poisoned, who have needlessly paid tens of thousands of dollars, who have been told to destroy their possessions. Calls for compulsory testing of all rental properties, backed up by "experts" making increasingly wild claims about the extent of "contamination".

One name crops up frequently: that of New Zealander Ryan Matthews, who founded the companies MethScreen and Decontamination Solutions here in 2016 and now operates MethScreen in Australia.

Matthews' LinkedIn profile shows a business history in construction, designer swimming pools, a payday loans company and a supplements business, but no technical or scientific qualifications in toxicology or environmental testing.

And yet here he is in the news, telling news.com.au that one in five rental homes in Victoria alone could contain dangerous meth residue. As the tester who told a Sydney family to flee their home and claimed that "at least one house in every street is contaminated and potentially uninhabitable". Falsely claiming that any house testing over Australia's extremely low 0.5 microgram lab cleanup guideline was uninhabitable, and reeling off more dubious claims about the extent of such "contamination".

Matthews and his company are at the centre of this new 45-minute report by ABC radio's Hagar Cohen. It builds into its story, but it becomes clear that what Cohen has done here is something I don't think anyone did in New Zealand – get inside the industry and its practices. MethScreen turns out to have reported concentrations that were not only thousands of times higher than the 0.5 guideline, but many, many times greater than subsequent expert testing was able to replicate.

When one woman resisted Matthews' urging to vacate her home and pay for further testing (she cited our Science Advisor's report) he offered her a second round of testing for free – on the condition that she speak to news media as a contamination victim.

It starts to become clear why MethScreen's results are so high, when Cohen talks to a former employee, who explains a testing process that seems designed to indicate high concentrations of residue, whether they're there or not.

It's a fascinating story. My only quibble would be the credence given to the ubiquitous Jackie Wright of Flinders University. The Chief Science Advisor's report was simply unable to stack up Wright's claims about the health impact of meth residues – and not for want of trying. But Cohen does repeatedly make the point that there is "no firm evidence" that links exposure to trace residues of methamphetamine to any health harm.

It should be noted that many of the news media reports in Australia do mention the Chief Science Advisor's report, but invariably as a footnote. There, as here, the most alarming claims are in the headlines – whether they have any basis or not.

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