Meth Labs

There are many ways law enforcement agents discover a meth lab. They can be discovered during the course of everyday law enforcement work, investigations, and traffic stops; inadvertent discovery during unrelated enforcement actions such as domestic calls or disputes between neighbors; during human services related investigations or when responding to a fire, explosion or odor complaint.

The signs that an illegal meth production lab – clandestine or ‘clan’ lab – is in operation include:

  • Excessive traffic, especially at unusual times
  • Windows covered with foil, plywood or cloth
  • Reinforced doors
  • Unusual security such as video surveillance, alarm systems or guard dogs
  • Strong chemical odors such as ether or ammonia
  • Renters who pay the rent in cash
  • Weapons ranging from a single handgun to an arsenal of high powered weapons and explosives
  • Excess trash especially empty containers from antifreeze, lantern fuel and drain cleaner
  • Lack of signs of routine living such as no mail or newspaper delivery or little or no furniture
  • Laboratory glassware or other paraphernalia like rubber tubing either being carried into the residence or loaded in vehicles

Meth labs can be found in a number of locations including outbuildings, moving and parked vehicles, storage units, wooded/secluded areas, houses, hotel/motel rooms…just about anywhere (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Meth lab.
Image: Meth lab set up.

Meth labs are dangerous for many reasons despite the fact that the ingredients seem to be safe household items. When the ingredients are mixed and heated, explosions and fires can result, toxic fumes can lead to breathing problems, and the resulting waste contains heavy metals, corrosive liquids and acid vapors. Meth cookers have very little, if any, chemistry training and pay little attention to proper chemical storage.

If you find a meth lab, your personal safety is the primary consideration. Notify the appropriate authorities immediately. Be aware of wind direction to avoid exposure to chemical vapors. Inform authorities if you believe you have been contaminated. Being nosey can cause serious harm or death (Figure 9).

In order to clean up meth labs and dump sites, personnel must have special training. The DEA facilities in Quantico, Virginia, and a newer facility near Kansas City provide 3 levels of training:

  1. The most basic level of training is one week long and is designed for state and local law enforcement. These seminars are held around the country as well.
  2. The second level is a two week course for DEA agents that covers investigative techniques as well as chemical safety.
  3. The most advanced course is available only to DEA agents who have completed the two-week course. This advanced level course is one week long.

Since the inception of these training programs no DEA agents have been seriously hurt or killed in a clan lab investigation. Annual recertification is required to maintain efficiency and safety, as well as learn the latest techniques and information. Annual medical and physical evaluations are performed to be certain the agents are protected from the hazardous chemicals. Graduates of the program receive personal protective equipment including boots, clothing, goggles, gloves and respirators. A typical cleanup can take 8-15 hours. The typical cleanup used to cost an average of $17,000 but due to improved techniques, the cost has dropped to approximately $5,000. One cost-saving measure is the Container Programpiloted by the DEA in Kentucky. Trained law enforcement officers package and transport hazardous waste to a secure central location, resulting in dramatically reduced costs to the state. Federal funding for meth lab cleanup is diminishing and impacting such states as Tennessee, Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi and Arkansas. Finding money in already stretched budgets is a challenge and may result in the decline of proactive meth lab searches. Several states, including Georgia, Indiana, Kansas and Tennessee, participate in the Container Program. In 2014, Indiana was the top meth lab state with 1,471 meth lab seizures.63

At this time, there are no federal regulatory standards, and few state standards, to identify levels of contamination that can be safely tolerated by individuals reoccupying a former meth lab. It is generally too expensive to decontaminate cars, mobile homes, campers and other types of mobile residences so they are usually destroyed. There are no national regulations dealing with how to clean up a former meth lab although the EPA does publish voluntary cleanup guidelines. It is generally agreed that areas where meth has been smoked are less contaminated than production labs but these areas would benefit from the use of these cleanup guidelines.70 The following procedures are recommended for residences previously used as meth labs: several days of ventilation; disposal of carpeting, wallpaper, paneling, furniture, and drapes; washing of all surfaces twice; sealing and painting ceilings, walls and wood floors; cleaning furnaces, air conditioners and ducts. Plumbing should be inspected to determine if products were dumped in sinks, drains or toilets. Residual products can give off fumes. Check to see if the septic system has been contaminated. If yard contamination due to dumping is suspected, contact the local health department or department of natural resources for advice. It is suggested that states enact laws covering cleanup of former meth labs as well as disclosure if real estate or cars were former meth labs. Local law enforcement or health departments may maintain a list of former meth labs.