Clandestine Drug Labs Present Hidden Dangers for Firefighters

By Tim Hadlock

Firefighters and emergency responders face new dangers every day of their career, but it is the obscured dangers of clandestine laboratories that have become the most dangerous to emergency responders in today’s times. The increase in the number of illegal clandestine laboratories since the 1960s has been dramatic. Clandestine labs are used to produce deadly toxins and improvised explosive devices, but their main use is for the production of illicit drugs. The obscured dangers for firefighters range from hidden chemical and explosive hazards to the inability to recognize a potential clandestine lab before it is too late. These labs can be found anywhere–from a car trunk to a residential apartment to anywhere else imaginable.


Even though clandestine labs have been in use since the 1960s, their numbers have increased rapidly over the past 15 years because of the attractiveness of methamphetamine use in the world. (Scott, 2006, p. 3). The problem of clandestine labs is increasing worldwide. The United States and many European countries have seen the largest increases of clandestine labs. In the United States in the 1980s, users of illicit drugs numbered around 12 million; that number increased to more than 13.5 million by the 1990s. The attraction to methamphetamines has sent these numbers off the charts over the past decade. (Hughart, 2003, p. 1).

Clandestine labs for the production of methamphetamines are usually small in size and can be assembled in any location imaginable. These types of clandestine labs are generally run by drug users to supply themselves with enough material to support their habit. There are larger labs that mass produce methamphetamines for profit and distribution. According to The Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Intelligence Center in El Paso, Texas, database, the number of these types of laboratories seized by the DEA in 2001 was 8,577 and that number had risen to 9,815 in 2003. These numbers do not take in account the 3,000 to 4,000 partial lab components obtained by the government. Clandestine laboratories exist in every state of the United States and are found in all major cities at an alarming rate. (McCampbell, 2004).


The reason for the increased use of illicit drugs results from the production of four major clandestine drugs: methamphetamines, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or Ecstasy), flunitraxepam (Rohypnol), and gammahydroxybutyrate (GI-IB) (Hughart, 2003). Although other illicit drugs are produced in clandestine labs, methamphetamine production accounts for 80 percent to 90 percent of production in U.S. labs. (Scott, 2006, p. 1). Methamphetamines are inexpensive, very addictive, and are relatively simple to produce–reasons that account for the increasing number of clandestine laboratories in the United States. The super-clandestine laboratories that manufacture methamphetamines are located mostly in California and Mexico. These labs are more organized and account for about 80 percent of the production of methamphetamines. The illicit drugs super labs provide are of great concern, of course, but the small labs pose the most significant threat to emergency responders. The small labs account for around 90 percent of the total clandestine laboratories but only 10 percent to 20 percent of the methamphetamine production. The small laboratories are the most dangerous because they are run by unskilled individuals using primitive equipment to produce the illicit drugs. (Scott, 2006, pp. 3-4).  

Illicit drugs are not the only items manufactured in the clandestine labs. Toxic and biological substances, improvised explosive devices, incendiary weapons, and radiological weapon are also produced in these labs to aid in domestic and international terrorism. Illicit drug laboratories are the main concern in the United States, but the small number of clandestine laboratories used for terrorism is still a concern to emergency responders. (Campbell, 2008, p. 142). The increase in the number of clandestine laboratories is a result of detailed instructions being available to anyone on the Internet and in books. The recipes to produce illicit drugs require chemicals that, for the most part, are relatively easy to obtain by the public. The same goes for improvised explosive devices and other terrorist weapons. (Scott, 2006, p. 4). The increase in the amount of clandestine laboratories increases the hazards and dangers that emergency responders will face in their career.       


It is important that firefighters be trained in the dangers of a clandestine laboratory and how to safeguard their overall safety. Small mom-and-pop-style clandestine laboratories are used by uneducated individuals who combine volatile chemicals, heat these chemicals together in a poor environment, and are drug addicts who do not get much sleep–not a winning combination. Methamphetamines can be made from an estimated 34 chemicals. The most common of these chemicals are red phosphorous, iodine, ephedrine, hydrochloric acid, ether, phenylpropanolamine, and anhydrous ammonia. (Scott, 2006, p. 6). The type of cooking method used makes no difference as far as the responders are concerned: No method is safe, from an emergency response standpoint (Scott, 2006, p. 8). When combined, the elements used in a clandestine laboratory provide an unfavorable environment. The combining of chemicals, solvents, fuels, heating methods and poor environments produces devastating results.

Some of the hazards that the public and emergency responders could encounter from the materials in clandestine labs are toxic fumes, poisonous gases, chemical vapors or burns, and explosions. Clandestine labs produce unstable environments because of the reactions of the different chemicals being combined, water-reactive chemicals, heating elements, and poor ventilation, which produce explosive environments. (McCampbell, 2004, p. 2).

Operators of clandestine laboratories, especially meth makers, often use protection devices to ambush law enforcement officers or unwanted intruders. These devices also provide a warning to the individuals in the laboratory so they have time to escape. Some examples of these protection devices are trip-wire explosives, land mines, guard dogs, acid bombs, and concealed traps. Meth makers are usually armed, nervous, and paranoid because of the effects the drugs on the users. (LaCorte, 2009). Clandestine laboratories create obscured dangers that the emergency responders must identify to protect lives and property. The only way emergency responders can accomplish such a difficult task is to obtain proper training so they can recognize the hazards when they present themselves.                                                                            


It is beneficial to any agency to train all its emergency responders to recognize the precursors, chemicals, unusual odors, and booby traps that could warn them of an obscured danger of a clandestine laboratory. Some examples of the precursors are mason jars, soda bottles, rubber tubing, coffee filters, hot plates, stained Pyrex® or cooking dishes, propane tanks, high-pressure cylinders, turkey basters, rubber gloves, aluminum foil, measuring cups, corrosives, solvent, and different chemicals. (McCampbell, 2004, p. 2). In addition to the signs that are visible as precursors for a lab, other signs may also point to the possibility of an obscured danger. As an example, a medical patient that has chemical burns to the hands and face could be consistent with injuries often suffered by clandestine laboratory cooks. Breathing difficulties that were the result of chemical burns could be another indicator. Some patients will not reveal how they incurred the injuries, or they may give a reason that is not consistent with the types of injuries. The patients may be extremely agitated and difficult to treat.  The potential for hazards exist on every call emergency responders go on, so being alert and using caution should become second nature. (Weisheit, 2008, p. 92).                         

One of these clandestine laboratories could exist in any location to which an emergency responder is sent. They could be in any area of the country: farms, rental properties, storage units, hotels, apartment buildings, vacant structures, single family dwellings, or motor vehicles. (Scott, 2006, p. 5). Once you have determined that a clandestine laboratory is involved, evacuate the area immediately, and deny entrance to the area. The evacuation area should be uphill and upwind from the laboratory. Decontamination must be a priority, and you must strictly follow standard operating procedures. Establish an incident command post, and immediately notify the proper people and agencies. (McCampbell, 2004, p. 4).

 These obscured dangers can be recognized and handled in a safe and prudent manner as long as the emergency responders have the knowledge, training, and abilities needed to recognize the hazards. Clandestine laboratories can be invisible to the untrained eye; a trained professional should always be alert for the obstructed dangers that exist, and take the appropriate actions to protect the responders and the public when these dangers are recognized. Once a life hazard is known, emergency responders must take the proper precautions and corrective measures to control the emergency no matter what unfolds. 

Tim Hadlock is a captain for the North River Fire District in Manatee County, Florida, and an 18-year veteran of the fire service.


Campbell, J. J. (2008). Homeland security and emergency medical response. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Hughart, J. (2003). Chemical hazards related to Clandestine drug laboratories. Retrieved from Agency for Toxic Substances and Desease Registry :

LaCorte, K. (2009, July 6). Meth lab Hazards to eEmergency responders. Retrieved from Indiana Department of Homeland Security:

McCampbell, M. S., & Phillips, S. (2004). Lethal Secret. Fire Chief journal, Retrieved from  

Scott, M. S., & Dedel K. (2006). Clandestine methamphetamine labs 2nd edition. Retrieved from Center  for Problem Oriented Policing :

Weisheit, R. (2008, Febuary 23). Making methamphetamine. Retrieved from Southern Rual Sociology:

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