Responding to a Clandestine Drug Laboratory

BY AUGUST VERNON

If your agency is dispatched to what might be a clandestine drug laboratory (clan lab), would you know how to recognize one and safeguard your safety? What would happen if your responders found one during routine activities?

A clan lab is any laboratory that manufactures illegal, controlled drugs or substances. These labs have been found in single- and multiple-family dwellings, motel rooms, campgrounds and woods, mini-storage buildings, and motor vehicles, among other places.

Law enforcement raids on clan labs have the potential to escalate into a hazmat, a fire, or an EMS response. Increasingly, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies are requesting that fire and EMS assets be available during the thousands of law enforcement raids that take place across the United States annually. Every year, several first responders in the United States are exposed to and injured by these labs. 

A GROWING PROBLEM

 

Clan labs are not a new problem for first responders. The article “The Fire Service Should Know about Clandestine Drug Labs” appeared in the November 1970 issue of the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Command. One of the key problems is that methamphetamine (meth) is very simple and inexpensive to make. Most cooks learn to cook from other cooks. Unlike other drugs where there is competition among dealers, meth cooks at times act as a co-op for each other: When one runs out of an essential ingredient, he trades for it with another known cook. Cooks make money by charging other users in their area a fee to teach them to cook. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), more than 99 percent of labs seized in 2008 were related to methamphetamine. In the United States, 6,783 meth lab incidents were reported that year. These incidents included labs, dumpsites, and chemical/glass/equipment discoveries.

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(1) Responders must be aware of the equipment used in a clandestine drug lab. (Photos by author.)

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, law enforcement records indicate that at least three meth lab cooks are killed by explosions or poison chemical incidents each year across the United States. Numerous other cooks receive injuries and burns. Likewise, the number of injuries to responders who mitigate, investigate, and dismantle these labs has greatly increased. Property damage and injuries to the civilian population have also dramatically increased. In the western United States, some cities have reported that meth lab arrests have surpassed driving under the influence/driving while intoxicated arrests. First responders must ensure that they have response guidelines and procedures in place before these types of incidents occur in their jurisdictions.

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(2) Containers with multilayered liquids can be an indicator of a clandestine drug lab.

It has been shown that areas with a high amount of meth abuse also have an increase in domestic abuse, child abuse, unemployment, and violence. Thousands of independent traffickers and cooks operate across this country, and there are increasing numbers of smaller “mom and pop” labs operating in the Southeast. Meth abusers are found in all segments of society, not just in the “poor areas.” Meth remains popular with young people at clubs and all-night parties called “raves.” College students and truckers use meth to stay awake. Athletes use meth to relieve fatigue. Some dieters use meth to lose weight. Although some users may begin taking meth for some of these reasons, they quickly become addicted.

 

METH HAZARDS AND STREET VALUE

 

Meth is a central nervous system stimulant. Its effects are very similar to cocaine: Users experience increased energy and euphoria. However, the duration of the meth high lasts much longer than that of cocaine, from six to 14 hours.

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(3) A wide range of household materials and chemicals are used in the production of meth.

Meth can be injected, inhaled, and smoked. Chronic users (tweakers) use high levels of the drugs every few hours during prolonged binges that can last for more than a week. With the addicted abusers staying awake for periods up to a week, they begin to experience extreme irritability, increased nervousness, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, and violent or erratic behavior from sleep deprivation.

Keep in mind that during these binges, the cook/user will often cook more meth, making it easier, because of drug use and sleep deprivation, to make a mistake while performing a complex chemical synthesis. Responders need to be very careful when dealing with these individuals, because they have a high incidence of the following communicable diseases: HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, cholera, and infectious skin disorders. Proper personal protective equipment is a must when dealing with a meth-addicted person.

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(4) Large and unusual amounts of ephedrine products and other household materials can be key indicators of a clandestine drug lab.

One ounce of meth can be produced for around $100 to $200. It sells for $10,000 to $15,000 per pound and $100 per gram. A key issue is that one pound of produced meth will generate up to five or more pounds of hazardous waste.

 

HOUSEHOLD MATERIALS

 

Typically, meth is a white powder that easily dissolves in water. Another form of meth, clear chunky crystals, is called crystal meth, or ice. Meth can also be in the form of small, brightly colored tablets. Following is a list of household materials used to produce meth: pseudoephedrine, a drug contained in over-the-counter cold medicines and the primary ingredient needed to manufacture meth; aluminum foil; paint thinner; lithium camera batteries; mineral spirits; charcoal lighter fluid; anhydrous ammonia; denatured alcohol; matchbooks and matchbook striker plates; rock, table, or Epsom salt; camp fuel; gas line antifreeze (methanol); muriatic acid; tincture of iodine (used to form crystals); sulfuric acid; lye (sodium hydroxide); ammonium nitrate; dry ice; acetone; coffee filters, cheesecloth, or napkins (to separate liquids from solids); pots, pans, stoves, or pressure cookers (cooking); iced tea jars, sports jars, or glassware (to separate layers of liquids); blenders; ice chests, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders; coolers; turkey basters; and chemical containers.

 

FIRE/EMS Warning Signs

 

Unless you are requested to stand by at a drug lab “take down,” most drug lab incidents will usually be reported as other types of emergencies. The following are some examples: medical aid calls with burn or smoke-inhalation victims; “man-down” calls; structure fires and rubbish fires, perhaps accompanied by explosions or “loud booms”; and investigation calls (smoke investigations, odor complaints, illegal dumping, and sick buildings).

If you note that all of the items in the room (lab) are common household items in unusually large amounts, suspect that you are in a clan lab. Lye is a great example. Most households no longer have a can of lye; if they do, they have only one. If you respond to a call and see 12 cans of lye on a table in the living room, there is a good chance that you are in a clan lab. Attention to detail can save your life!

If you see a large amount of cold tablet punch/blister packs that list ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as their primary medicinal ingredient, remember that this ingredient is a precursor ingredient for the manufacture of meth. Likewise, the following are also clues that the location is a clan lab:

  • Jars containing clear liquid with a white- or red-colored solid on the bottom.
  • Jars labeled as containing iodine or that contain dark shiny metallic purple crystals.
  • Jars labeled as containing red phosphorus or that contain a fine dark red or purple powder.
  • Coffee filters containing a white pasty substance, a dark red sludge, or small amounts of shiny white crystals.
  • Bottles labeled as containing sulfuric, muriatic, or hydrochloric acid.
  • Bottles or jars with rubber tubing attached.
  • Glass cookware or frying pans containing a powdery residue.
  • An unusually large number of cans of camp fuel, paint thinner, acetone, lye, and drain cleaners containing sulfuric acid or bottles containing muriatic acid.
  • Large numbers of lithium batteries, especially if they have been stripped.
  • Soft silver or gray metallic ribbon (in chunk form) stored in oil or kerosene.
  • Propane tanks with fittings that have turned blue.
  • Occupants of the residence outside smoking.
  • A strong smell of urine or unusual chemical smells such as ether, ammonia, or acetone.

 

Some exterior structural indicators you may see or experience during your initial “windshield survey” include covered (plastic) or painted windows, chemical odors, homemade bars on doors or windows, chemical containers and glassware (indoors or outdoors), stains on walls and ceilings, corrosion of metal surfaces, unusual pipes or ducts coming from windows or walls, fans in inappropriate places, portable generators for outdoor sites, and propane tanks or other types of pressurized containers with unusual valves or attachments. Look for objects or people who seem out of place for the location or time of the call. If something looks suspicious, it probably is. All the above indicators are not proof that you have discovered a clan drug lab, but they should raise a “red flag.” Be more aware of your surroundings and the situation.

 

TOP 10 HAZARDS

 

The major hazards you may encounter at a clan lab response are the following:

1. A flammable or an explosive atmosphere.
2. An oxygen-deficient or toxic atmosphere.
3. Leaking or damaged compressed gas cylinders.
4. Clan labs in confined spaces.
5. Water-reactive and pyrophoric chemicals.
6. Damaged and leaking chemical containers.
7. Electrical hazards and sources of ignition.
8. Reactions in progress, which can include containers under high heat and high pressure.
9. Incompatible chemical reactions.
10. Bombs and booby traps.
 

Incompatible, reactive chemicals are being mixed and cooked in confined spaces. Tremendous amounts of hazardous waste can be produced. In addition to the chemical and process hazards present in a clan lab, responders need to also be aware of antipersonnel devices, or booby traps. These devices are sometimes designed to protect the lab operators’ investment while they are away and also to serve as warning devices to aid in the owner’s or operator’s escape. Unfortunately, they can also incapacitate responders. Do not attempt to move, handle, or disarm a confirmed or suspected improvised explosive device, homemade explosive, or booby trap. These are jobs for specially trained personnel. 

RESPONSE GUIDELINES 

Follow your local guidelines and procedures when responding to these incidents. This article is for informational and educational purposes only. Clan drug labs can cause three main types of harm: physical injury from explosions, fires, chemical burns, and toxic fumes; environmental hazards; and child endangerment. Preparation is key. That includes a clear idea of what your actions will be before an incident occurs. The first step in your preparation is to properly train all response personnel to make them aware of the hazards and risks associated with clan drug labs. If a drug lab is suspected, alert local law enforcement and secure the area.

  • If responding to a working fire in a structure or a vehicle containing a known lab, it is a good idea to conduct rescues, protect exposures, and let the chemicals burn. This will depend on your local guidelines. 
  • Attempting to control the fire may be very hazardous for the entry team. 
  • Runoff may be an issue. 
  • If the fire is small, use dry chemical or carbon dioxide extinguishers. This will depend on your local guidelines.  
  • If the initial fire attack is in progress when the location is identified as a clan lab, withdraw the attack teams and shift from an offensive to a defensive operation.  
  • Evacuate all structures surrounding the incident, and initiate hazmat zones.
  • Discontinue overhaul, and leave the structure if chemicals and drug apparatus are found.
  • Carefully think through decontamination considerations before entry, especially in the case of a responder emergency. Focus on hasty or emergency decon procedures.
  • If a drug lab is found on entering a structure or at a vehicle, alert other responders on-scene without delay, and do not touch anything, including light switches. Back out immediately; watch for antipersonnel devices and other hazards. If possible, bring all occupants out with you.
  • Use care when interacting with a meth user.
  • Remember that you have happened on an illegal activity, which is also a crime scene.If you encounter a clan lab and identify it as such, follow regular hazmat response procedures or guidelines.
  • Most hazmat guidelines dictate that you set up hazard zones. Position all response personnel and vehicles upwind, and keep all other people out of the area.
  • Notify local law enforcement immediately.
  • If your jurisdiction has a hazmat response team, you may have to summon it to the scene to assist with decon and setting up the control zones. On team members’ arrival, brief them on your findings and actions. Support and assist the team as needed.
  • Several decisions will have to be made. Establish Unified Command. 

DO NOT 

  • Touch anything in the lab.
  • Turn on or off any electrical power switches or light switches.
  • Eat or drink in or around a lab.
  • Open or move containers with chemicals or suspected chemicals.
  • Smoke anywhere near a lab.
  • Sniff any containers. 

DO 

  • Decontaminate yourself and your clothing.
  • Wash your hands and face thoroughly.
  • Call your local law enforcement or DEA district office.1 
••• 

Safety is paramount for all responders during these types of incidents. Remember to follow local guidelines and procedures.

It is impossible to cover all the issues that you will need to address during a clan lab response. Each community should have some type of a plan in place to address these incidents. Hopefully, this information will enable you to assist your agency with planning and training. The more our public safety agencies prepare, the more efficiently and safely they will be able to manage any type of situation that might arise. The community has entrusted you with its safety. Prepare now.

Endnote 

1. For additional information on clan lab response, training, and planning, see the following: Special Operations for Terrorism and Hazmat Crimes, Mike Hildebrand, Greg Noll, and Chris Hawley, www.redhatpub.com/ and First Responders Critical Incident Field Guide, August Vernon, www.redhatpub.com/.

AUGUST VERNON is an assistant coordinator/operations officer for the Forsyth County (NC) Office of Emergency Management. He returned in 2005 to this position after spending a year in Iraq as a security contractor conducting convoy security. Vernon has been a member of emergency management since 2000 and was a member of the fire service and a fire service instructor. He also served in the U.S. Army as a nuclear, biological, and chemical operations specialist and teaches courses in incident management, mass violence, hazmat operations, and terrorism/weapons of mass destruction response. He has also been published in several national publications. 

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