Clandestine Drug Labs Pose Serious Dangers to Responders

If your agency is dispatched to a possible clandestine drug lab, would you know how to recognize one? What happens if your responders find one during routine activities?


If your agency is dispatched to a possible clandestine drug lab, would you know how to recognize one? What happens if your responders find one during routine activities?

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), in 2008 there were over 6,783 laboratory incidents including labs and dumpsites in the United States. A clandestine laboratory is any laboratory that manufactures illegal, controlled drugs or substances. These labs have been found in single- and multiple-family dwellings, motel rooms, campgrounds, mini-storage buildings, and motor vehicles. Law enforcement raids on clandestine drug labs have the potential to escalate into a hazmat, fire or EMS response. Increasingly local, state and federal law enforcement agencies request that fire and EMS assets be available during the thousands of raids that take place across the U.S. annually. Every year across the U.S. several first responders are exposed and injured to these labs.

A Growing Problem

Clandestine labs are not a new problem for first responders; an article titled "The Fire Service should know about Clandestine Drug Labs" appeared in the November 1970 issue of the National Fire Protection Association's Fire Command magazine. One of the key problems is meth as it is very simple and inexpensive to make. Most cooks learn to cook methamphetamine from other cooks. Unlike other drugs where there is competition between dealers, methamphetamine cooks, at times, act as a co-op for each other. When one runs out of an essential ingredient, they trade 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 DEA, more than 99 percent of labs seized were meth labs. Other illicit drugs like PCP, MDMA, and LSD are also manufactured in clandestine labs. According to the DEA, in 2006 there were 6,435 methamphetamine laboratory incidents reported in the United States. This includes labs, dumpsites, and chemical/glass/equipment discoveries.

According to the FBI, law enforcement records indicate that at least three meth lab cooks are killed by explosions or poison chemical incidents each year in the United States. Numerous others receive injuries and burns. Likewise, a great increase has occurred in the reported number of injuries to responders who respond to, investigate and dismantle labs. Property damage and injuries to the civilian population has also dramatically increased. In the Western United States, some cities report that meth lab arrests have surpassed DUI/DWI arrests. First responders must address their response guidelines and procedures to address this issue before it occurs.

It has been shown that areas suffering from a high amount of meth abuse will also suffer an increase in domestic abuse, child abuse, unemployment and violence. Thousands of independent traffickers and cooks operate across the U.S., with increasing numbers in the Southeast operating a large number of the smaller "mom and pop" laboratories. Meth abusers are found in all segments of society, not just the "poor" areas. Meth remains popular with young people at clubs and raves and college students and truckers will use it to stay awake. Athletes will use meth to relieve fatigue. Some dieters will use meth to loose weight. Some users may begin using meth for some of the reasons listed above but will quickly become addicted.

Meth is central nervous stimulant. Effects of meth are very similar to cocaine, with users experiencing a sense of increase energy and euphoria, but the duration of the meth high lasts much longer - from six to 14 hours. Meth can be injected, inhaled and smoked. Chronic users or "tweakers" will use high levels of the drugs every few hours during prolonged binges that can last more than a week in duration. With the addicted abuser staying awake for periods up to a week they begin to experiencing extreme irritability from sleep depravation, increased nervousness, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations and violent or erratic behavior. Keep in mind that during these binges the cook/user will often cook more meth making it easier due to 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 rate of the following communicable diseases: HIV/AIDS, TB, cholera, and infectious skin disorders. Proper protective equipment (PPE) is a must when dealing with a methamphetamine addicted person.

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