Photo by author

An increasing danger for emergency responders is the illegal drug lab. Successful law enforcement efforts to reduce illegal drug traffic from other countries into the United States have prompted many drug merchants to attempt local production of illegal drugs. Drugs that are manufactured in such labs include LSD, PCP, amphetamine, methamphetamine. Quaalude™, and phentanol analogs or other designer drugs, which arc very potent. Inhaling airborne particulate matter at the lab site, in some instances, can be fatal.

Methamphetamine (speed) is the most popular and profitable homemade drug. In December 1988, a newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland, reported that chemicals purchased for S 175 can be combined to produce one pound of pure methamphetamine. which can be weakened and sold at a street value of S32,000.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports in Domestic Statistical Summary for DEA Clandestine Lab Seizures that lab seizures increased from 225 in 1983 to 549 in 1990. (Note that state and local law enforcement seizures are not included, and these numbers reflect only the drug labs that were found.)

You may have contact with an illegal drug lab in one of two scenarios: either while involved in suppression operations when a lab is on fire or as part of support operations when law enforcement personnel are dismantling a drug lab.


Clandestine labs can be found in any geographic area, regardless of social-economic conditions. Although most are found in isolated areas throughout rural America, cheap inner-city motels and expensive homes in the suburbs cannot be ruled out as possible lab sites.

Labs also may be found in various types of vehicles such as buses and trucks. Even motor homes traveling the streets in your area may contain more than happy campers.

You may be exposed to the dangers of an illegal drug lab as a result of unsuspecting neighbors requesting the fire department to investigate unusual odors near their homes. The odors produced during the cooking process required in drug production can be mistaken for the smell of dried cat urine, cat litter, or rotting garbage. Ether, a chemical used in many reactions, has a distinctive smell that many people recognize and identify when reporting the incident.

One of the few common exterior features that may indicate an illegal drug lab operation is windows covered with black plastic, cardboard, or paint. In residential areas, heavy fortifications such as iron bars on doors and windows may be present.

As a result of the high flammability of many of the chemicals stored in an illegal drug lab, the response to an otherwise normal building or vehicle fire may turn out to be anything but normal. Following a dwelling fire in 1986 that had been especially difficult to extinguish, firefighters in northern California discovered more than 200 five-gallon cans of various chemicals. Realizing that the house was being used as a clandestine drug lab, law enforcement assistance was requested. Further investigation uncovered a large amount of cash, firearms, and ammunition and a cache of illegal drugs with a street value of S600,000. Nine firefighters involved in the incident had to be treated at the hospital after inhaling toxic fumes.

People involved in the drug production often use their own product. Thus responders to a reported drug overdose may stumble on an illegal lab. When entering a building or vehicle to treat an overdose victim, note any glassware or other items that normally would be found in a school chemistry lab. People working in illegal labs may call for medical assistance when they begin to suffer symptoms of exposure to the various toxic, corrosive, explosive, and flammable hazardous materials present.


Each lab is set up in a different configuration. Thus, consider everything associated with a clandestine drug lab hazardous. Be careful where you walk, and avoid touching anything except what you brought with you.

An action such as shutting off the tap water supply to a cooling condenser or attempting to interrupt a heat-induced chemical reaction can cause an explosion. Many reactions must be shut down in stages. Only the operator know’s the stages and understands the processes involved. Some of them require as long as 72 hours to complete. Because of the hazards involved in the cooking process, most operators mix the ingredients and leave the area when the cooking process begins.

Operators may set booby traps in and around the lab to protect the operation in their absence. Outside the lab you may find fragmentation and incendiary devices, animal traps, and impaling stakes. Inside you may find vicious dogs, poisonous snakes, fish hooks hung at eye level, explosives connected to heating elements and electrical switches, and weapons such as crossbows and spear guns set to discharge when the trigger mechanism is disturbed.

Contact explosives are a common danger that you may face while operating at an illegal drug lab. They arcmade by combining potassium chlorate or red phosphorus with another chemical. The chemicals are rolled into a ball of aluminum foil and placed throughout the lab. When disturbed the ball will explode (since the chemicals inside become volatile or unstable when they adhere to the aluminum and dry out), possibly causing injury or death to anyone nearby.

Do not disturb a suspected boobytrap. Mark its location so others will avoid the area, and notify the incident commander of the location of the device. In the case of an explosive device, do not use a portable radio to make the notification, since many devices are radio-activated; instead. go to the command post yourself. Because of the painful and disfiguring injuries they inflict, booby traps have been given much attention. However, although the traps do pose a serious hazard, the probability of long-term disability or death is far greater from the toxic hazards found in and around the lab.


Preliminary hot zone. All personnel and equipment operating at the scene of an illegal drug lab will be contaminated. As soon as the site is identified as a clandestine lab, establish a preliminary haz-mat hot zone. The zone should include the lab and surrounding area and all personnel and equipment that have been in contact with the lab. If equipment has been removed from the lab and placed on a vehicle, the vehicle must be included in the hot zone. The hazmat response team, when it arrives on the scene, will be responsible for determining the final size of the hot zone.

EMS operations. If you encounter an illegal lab during an emergency medical call, leave the lab immediately. Take the patient with you if you can do so without unnecessarily exposing yourself and your team to additional hazardous materials. If patient care permits, remain inside the preliminary hot zone until the hazmat response team arrives on scene. Do not return to your unit if it is outside the hot zone unless you need specific equipment for patient treatment not otherwise available.

You, fellow members, the patient, and the equipment should be considered contaminated and, unless proven otherwise, all must be decontaminated before leaving the hot zone. The level of contamination dictates the level of decontamination. Access to the warm zone should be limited to personnel directly’ involved in the incident.

If the patient’s condition requires immediate transport to a hospital, notify the hospital of the circumstances before you go there—this way, the hospital can prepare for your arrival or redirect you to another hospital that has facilities to better accommodate you. Hxplain that you have been exposed to a hazardous material associated with a drug lab and that there was no time for decontamination prior to transport. If the hospital has no set decon area or decon procedures, it may be necessary for members of the haz-mat response team to go to the hospital to carry out decon procedures. Hospital personnel and equipment must be included in the decon procedures as well

/7/e suppression. As in all fire situations, personnel operating at a fire in or around a suspected drug lab must wear full protective clothing, including SCBA. Higher levels of protective clothing, such as chemical vapor protective clothing, may be required if chemicals are involved in fire.

Depending on the type of structure or situation, if a structure (or vehicle) containing a known drug lab is involved in fire on your arrival, it may be best to let it burn and simply to protect exposures Many of the chemicals used in drug labs are highly explosive. Attempts to control the fire may prove deadly to suppression personnel The runoff of contaminated water produced by suppression efforts may cause widespread ecological damage as w ell.

However, if the decision is made to attack the tire, a hot zone should be established as soon as feasible. Access to the hot zone should be limited to personnel directly involved in control and mitigation efforts Personnel from other agencies required to handle the chemicals, protect the environment, collect the evidence, and so on should not be allowed in the hot zone until the tire is under control.

The warm zone should be identified as soon as personnel are available to erect decontamination stations backup personnel should move charged hoselines into the warm zone in anticipation of rapid escalation of the fire. These personnel should be properly positioned, properly clothed, and ready to immediately advance into the hot zone.

The area within the boundary of the fire line/crime scene tape and outside the warm zone should be established as the cold zone. This is a controlled area off-limits to the general public where the incident command post should be located. Protective clothing is not required in this area; therefore, this area can be used to stage additional personnel and equipment.

In all incidents involving drug labs, evacuate the structures on all sides of the involved structure. Consider evacuation of all people downwind of the incident when fire or a chemical spill is involved.

Ventilation. Thoroughly ventilate a known drug lab before attempting entry whether there is a fire or not, because chemical vapors accumulate inside. If mechanical ventilation is required, use positive-pressure ventilation. All emergency personnel —including those involved in EMS, fire, and chemical spill operations — should remain outside and upwind of the lab until the area has been monitored by the haz-mat response team and declared safe to enter.

Many of the chemicals used in drug labs are explosive if the proper air-toproduct ratio is attained. At all times during ventilation this ratio could be available at some point; thus it is imperative that all possible ignition sources be eliminated.

Controlling utilities. Check with the DEA’s on-scene chemist prior to turning off any utilities. If the chemist is not yet on scene, wait for his/her arrival before continuing the operation. When advised it is safe to do so, secure all electric power from remote locations to prevent unwanted sparks or arcing.

Shut all natural and low-pressuregas valves from outside the building to eliminate the pilot lights on stoves, heaters, and furnaces. Do not alter any gas utilities if the on-scene chemist feels it is not safe to remove the heat from a chemical reaction process already in progress. It may be necessary to withdraw all personnel to the cold zone and wait for the process to be completed before continuing the operation.


  • Local law enforcement
  • Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Hazardous-materials response team
  • Bomb squad
  • First-alarm fire department response
  • Utility companies

Monitoring personnel. An advanced life support unit should be assigned to all clandestine drug lab operations for the dedicated purpose of monitoring individuals w’orking in the hot zone. A monitoring station should be set up in the warm zone. All personnel leaving the hot zone should report to the monitoring station for medical evaluation as soon as they complete decon.

Chemicals used in a lab can be absorbed into the lab’s walls and floors. A potential health hazard exists even if the lab has been dismantled and the chemicals and equipment have been removed earlier.


Often law enforcement personnel request fire and rescue personnel to stand by while they conduct raids on clandestine drug labs. Law enforcement operations at these sites may not appear to conform to standard safety procedures. Raid teams will enter the structure without SCBA or protective clothing. During such operations the threat of violence toward the raid team far outweighs the potential toxic hazards. In such operations law enforcement personnel are trained to enter, make arrests quickly, and exit.

  • Coordination and cooperation among all agencies at the scene of an illegal drug lab are essential. As always, our goal should be to eliminate any hazards to the civilian population with minimal risk to ourselves.*

No posts to display