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?


One ounce of Meth can be produced for around $100 to $200. This amount can produce a profit of around $1,000. It can cost from $10,000 to $15,000 per pound and $100 per gram. One key issue is the fact that one pound of produced meth will generate up to five or more pounds of hazardous waste.

Household Materials Used In Process

Typically meth is a white powder that easily dissolves in water. Another form of meth, in clear chunky crystals, is called crystal meth, or ice. Meth can also be in the form of small, brightly colored tablets. Below is a list of household materials that are used in the production of meth:

Aluminum foilPaint thinnerMatchbook striker plates
Mineral spiritsCamp fuelCharcoal lighter fluid
Ammonium nitrateDry iceAnhydrous ammonia
Denatured alcoholSulfuric acidRed Devil Lye (sodium hydroxide)
Anhydrous ammoniaMuriatic acidGas line anti-freeze (methanol)
Tincture of IodineLithium batteriesRock, table, or epsom salts

The following are used in the manufacturing of drugs in the labs: 

  • Coffee filters, cheesecloths and napkins are used to seperate liquids from solids.
  • Pots, pans, stoves, pressure cookers are utilized for cooking
  • Iced tea jars, sports jars and glassware are used to separate layers of liquids
  • Blenders, ice chests, LPG cylinders, coolers, turkey bastes, chemical containers, bags of matchbooks, pill packs, etc., are also signs of a lab.

Pseudoephedrine is a drug contained in over the counter cold medicines and it is also the primary ingredient needed to manufacture methamphetamine. Remember labs can be located in every geographic and socioeconomic area and can be found in the woods, cars, trucks, rental trucks, storage sheds, houses, apartments, basements, garages, rental storage areas, motor homes, etc.

Responder Warning Signs

Unless you are requested to stand by at a drug lab "take down," most drug lab incidents are usually reported as other emergencies. The following are some examples:

  • Medical aid calls with burn or smoke inhalation victims
  • "Man down" calls
  • Structure fires
  • Rubbish fires, perhaps accompanied by explosions or loud booms
  • Investigation calls (smoke investigations, odor complaints, illegal dumping, sick buildings, etc.)

Some of the best advice that we can offer to a first responder about being able recognize that they are in a clandestine laboratory is that all of the items in the laboratory are common household items in very unusual amounts. Red Devil Lye is a great example. Most households no longer have a can of Red Devil Lye in them and if they do, they only have one can. If you responded to a call and see 10 cans of Red Devil Lye on a table in the living room, there is a good chance you are in a clandestine laboratory. Attention to detail will save your life!

  • A large amount of cold tablet punch/blister packs that list ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as their primary medicinal ingredient; remember pseudoephedrine is a precursor ingredient for the manufacture of methamphetamine.
  • Jars containing clear liquid with a white or red colored solid on the bottom.
  • Jars labeled as containing Iodine or dark shiny metallic purple crystals inside of jars.
  • Jars labeled as containing Red Phosphorus or 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, starting fluid, Lye, and drain cleaners containing Sulfuric Acid or bottles containing Muriatic Acid.
  • Large amounts of lithium batteries, especially ones that 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 residence going outside to smoke.
  • Strong smell of urine, or unusual chemical smells like ether, Ammonia or Acetone.