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Clandestine drug laboratories continue to present a significant law enforcement and emergency response problem across the United States. These illegal labs contain the chemicals and equipment required to manufacture controlled substances such as methamphetamines (speed, crack, ice, glass and crystal), phenyl-2-propanone (P2P), LSD, PCP (angel dust), MDA/MDPP (Ecstasy), metha-qualude, methcathinone (cat), fentanyl and others.
Photo by Robert Burke
Clandestine drug operations may become “mini” hazardous waste sites and require proper disposal following the investigation. Responders should be familiar with the detection clues and hazards of materials involved in drug lab operations.
Methamphetamines are by far the most common illegal drugs manufactured in clandestine labs and will be the primary focus of this column. Illegal drug labs have been discovered in homes, apartments, hotel and motel rooms, barns, restaurants, fields, vacant and abandoned buildings, storage facilities and even mobile labs.
This is a problem that concerns rural America as well as urban areas. In fact, the more remote the area, drug makers think, the less likely they will be detected by law enforcement. However, the very nature and dangers of clandestine drug labs may cause emergency responders to encounter them by accident or when something goes wrong with the chemicals involved. Other public officials or civilians may also discover clandestine drug labs.
Response personnel should become familiar with the detection clues and hazards of the hazardous materials involved in drug lab operations. The chemicals used are themselves dangerous, and they can produce hazardous byproducts and cause fires and explosions. Use of the chemicals can often result in contamination of the area used for the drug lab, which becomes a secondary contamination hazard for response personnel. Illegal drugs can be made with “preferred” or “alternate” chemicals. Some of these chemicals can make the operations more dangerous than others to the operators and the emergency responders.
Making illegal drugs does not require the sophistication, knowledge or equipment necessary to manufacture chemical and biological terrorist agents. Not all chemicals associated with illegal drug manufacture are regulated and many are available from local merchants such as pharmacies, hardware stores, supermarkets, discount and convenience stores, and agricultural cooperatives. Transactions that occur in these locations involving large purchases of suspected chemicals should be reported to law enforcement. Even better, retailers should be taught to limit the amounts of materials sold, making the drug lab operators work harder to obtain the raw materials needed for drug manufacture. Though not consistent in all locations, some chemicals which may be used in illegal drug manufacture are regulated by government agencies. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers should be aware of precursor chemicals used for illegal drug production.
Anhydrous ammonia is a common hazardous material used to make methamphetamines. It is often stolen from storage tanks on farms and commercial facilities, which may result in leaks and releases that require the response of emergency personnel. Frequently, the amounts of ammonia stolen are so small that they are not missed. Thieves then hide stolen ammonia in places where they are not expected to be found, such as the trunks of cars, inside vans, and in homes and apartments. Sometimes, thieves use portable propane tanks like those used for barbecue grills, which creates a hazard from ammonia attacking the fittings and valves that in turn may result in a release of the contents. The major problem with the theft of ammonia is that leaks often occur because valves are damaged or left open.