Chemistry of Clandestine Methamphetamine Drug Labs

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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.

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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.

Detection

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Photo by Robert Burke
Hazmat team personnel may be called upon to assist law enforcement with identification and hazard analysis of drug sites.

Response personnel must know how to recognize the hazards involved in emergencies that may involve clandestine drug labs. When a drug lab is suspected or discovered, it becomes a crime scene and law enforcement should be contacted immediately. Much like terrorist incident scenes, responders should take care to make sure the scene is safe (free of devices set up to injure response personnel) and take only those actions necessary to save lives and protect exposures.

In addition to all of the other things they should be looking for at an emergency scene, responders should be aware of the potential clues that point to an illegal drug operation. Clues to watch for include blackened out windows, burn pits, stained soil, dead vegetation and multiple over-the-counter-drug containers. Tree kills have been found around locations of methamphetamine labs. Some 150-year-old Ponderosa Pines were killed close to a drug lab in Arizona.

Residents never putting trash out, laboratory glassware being carried into a residence and little or no traffic during the day, but lots of traffic late at night, can also be clues to illegal drug operations. Empty containers from antifreeze, white gas, starting fluids, Freon, lye or drain openers, paint thinner, acetone or alcohol may be clues, especially if they seem out of place for the occupancy. Additional clues are anhydrous ammonia or propane tanks, ceramic or glass containers or other kitchenware with hoses or duct tape, and thermos bottles or other cold storage containers. Also suspect are respiratory masks and filters, dust masks, rubber gloves, funnels, hosing and clamps.

Unusual odors may also be present. When residential occupancies contain odors of ammonia, solvents, chemicals, sweet or bitter smells, all should be investigated to determine cause. Manufacturers of illegal drugs often set up booby traps for law enforcement and other responders.

Drug Lab Chemicals

Following is a list of some of the more dangerous and in some cases common hazardous chemicals that may be found in conjunction with clandestine drug lab operations. While the presence of any one of the materials does not automatically indicate a drug operation, the type of location and numbers of chemicals present should be taken into account. The list is not meant to be comprehensive or contain response operational information. It is provided as awareness information for emergency responders. Once chemicals are located at an incident scene, they should be researched using the same methods as other hazardous materials found at a hazmat incident.

  • Acetic acid (glacial) is a corrosive organic acid, colorless liquid and a solid below 62 degrees Fahrenheit (glacial means solid at normal temperatures). It has a vinegar-like odor. It is used in the manufacture of phenyl-2-propanone (P2P), methamphetamine and amphetamine. Its primary hazards are corrositivity and a strong irritant. In certain concentrations it can also be flammable.

  • Acetic anhydride is a colorless liquid with a strong vinegar-like odor. It can also be used in P2P synthesis. It is corrosive and can cause skin burns.

  • Acetone (dimethyl ketone), a member of the ketone family of hydrocarbon derivatives, is a volatile, highly flammable and colorless liquid solvent with a sweet type odor. It is a common ingredient in nail polish remover and may be found in beauty salons where nail technicians work. It is not highly toxic, but is a narcotic. Acetone is used in the manufacture of methamphetamines.

  • Anhydrous ammonia is a colorless, lighter-than-air gas with a strong, pungent odor. It is toxic and can be flammable under certain conditions, particularly inside a structure. Ammonia is readily available in rural areas, where it is used as a fertilizer, and has been the target of theft for use in clandestine drug operations. Ammonia in liquid form is reacted with sodium metal that is water reactive.

  • Benzene, an aromatic hydrocarbon, is a colorless-to-yellow liquid with an aromatic odor (characteristic of all aromatic hydrocarbons) that is flammable, toxic and known to cause cancer. It is a solvent used in methamphetamine production.

  • Ephedrine is composed of odorless white crystals. It can be found in medicines available over the counter. It is one of the primary precursors used in methamphetamine production. Ephedrine is an irritant and mildly toxic.

  • Ethanol, an alcohol hydrocarbon derivative, is a clear, colorless liquid solvent used in the production of methamphetamine. It is flammable, but only mildly toxic short term (used for drinking alcohol).

  • Ethyl ether, an ether hydrocarbon derivative, is colorless with a sweet, pungent odor. Ethyl ether is highly flammable, toxic and is used in the manufacture of methamphetamines. While it is the purpose of illegal drug manufacturers to produce drugs quickly and it is unlikely ethyl ether will be around long enough to become a danger, responders should be aware of the potential of explosive peroxide formation. Where containers of ether are in use for six months or longer, these peroxides can form. They are sensitive to heat and shock; any suspected old containers of ether should be treated like potential bombs.

  • Formic acid, also an organic acid, is a colorless liquid with a pungent odor. It is used in the process of methamphetamine manufacture. Formic acid is corrosive and toxic. Contact with oxidizing agents may cause explosion.

  • Hexane, a colorless liquid with a mild characteristic odor, is a solvent used in the production of methamphetamines. It is a central nervous system toxin and is extremely flammable.

  • Hydriodic acid is used by oil refineries to test crude oil for sulfur content. It is the principal chemical in the pseudoephedrine reduction process. Hydriodic acid breaks down the pseudoephedrine molecules to create methamphetamines.

  • Hydrogen iodide is a colorless gas used as a reagent with red phosphorus in the manufacture of methamphetamines. It is corrosive and an irritant.

  • Hydrochloric acid (muriatic acid or pool acid) is a colorless inorganic acid with a pungent odor. It is used in the manufacture of methamphetamines and is corrosive and has toxic irritating fumes. Gases released during the manufacturing process can be flammable and explosive. It is found in hardware stores.

  • Iodine is an element that is solid purple crystals or flakes with a sharp odor. It is use in the synthesis of hydriodic acid. Iodine is toxic by inhalation and ingestion and corrosive. It is sometimes used by ranchers to treat thrush on horse hooves. It is used in the initial stages of the pseudoephedrine/ephedrine cooking process.

  • Iodine tincture (solution with alcohol) is a dark red solution with a medicinal odor that is used in the synthesis of hydriodic acid. It is flammable and toxic by inhalation.

  • Lead acetate is solid white crystals or brown or gray lumps that are odorless. It is used in P2P synthesis and is hazardous from chronic exposure.

  • Lithium aluminum hydride is a solid white to gray powder and is odorless. It is corrosive and extremely water reactive. When in contact with water, it will generate explosive hydrogen gas. It is used in the hydrogenation process during methamphetamine production.

  • Methyl alcohol (methanol) is an alcohol hydrocarbon derivative and a clear colorless liquid with a characteristic odor. It is a solvent used in the production of amphetamines. Methanol is toxic and flammable and can cause blindness.

  • Naphtha is a reddish-brown liquid with an aromatic odor. It is a petroleum distillate solvent used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. The primary hazard is toxicity.

  • Phenylacetic acid is an organic acid that is a solid white, shiny crystal with a floral odor. It is used as a precursor to the synthesis of P2P. It is an irritant and a possible teratogen (causes birth defects).

  • Phosgene, a toxic gas, is a byproduct of the pseudoephedrine reduction process. When red phosphorus and iodine are heated, the lethal and odorless gas called phosgene is created. This could be dangerous to law enforcement and other responders walking in on an active lab.

  • Phosphine is a colorless gas with a fish- or garlic-like odor. It is a product of methamphetamine production. It is highly flammable and reacts explosively with air and is toxic by inhalation.

  • Phosphoric acid is an inorganic acid that is hygroscopic (absorbs moisture from the air) colorless crystal. Its primary hazard is as an irritant and it is corrosive. It is used as a precursor in the production of methamphetamine.

  • Pseudoephedrine, a white crystalline powder, is a precursor used in the production of methamphetamines. It is an irritant and is toxic by ingestion. Available in over-the-counter decongestants and diet pills, it used in the pseudoephedrine/ephedrine reduction method. The federal government has a limit of eight packages that can be purchased per person on medications containing pseudoephedrine.

  • Red phosphorus is a red-to-violet solid that is odorless. It is used as a catalyst in methamphetamine synthesis. Catalysts are used to control the speed of chemical reactions. Red phosphorus can form phosphine gas during the production process which is toxic by inhalation, flammable and reacts explosively with air. It can be found at the end of every matchstick in your home and is also used in road flares.

  • Ronsonol (lighter fluid) is a reddish-brown liquid with an aromatic odor. It is a petroleum distillate solvent consisting of two solvent naphtha fractions, light aliphatic 95% and medium 5% and Shell Sol RB 100%. Properties are similar to naphtha.

  • Sodium metal is an element that is a solid silvery white metal or crystal and is odorless. It is used in the hydrogenation in methamphetamine synthesis. Sodium metal is corrosive and extremely water reactive, liberating hydrogen gas.

  • Sodium hydroxide (lye) is found as white pellets or flakes that are odorless. It is a reagent used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Sodium hydroxide is extremely corrosive. When in contact with metals such as sodium or fire it can produce explosive hydrogen gas.

  • Sulfuric acid (drain cleaner) is a colorless-to-yellow viscous liquid that is generally odorless. It is used in the manufacture of amphetamine and methamphetamines. It is corrosive and may produce corrosive fumes, and is found in battery acid or drain cleaners.

  • Toluene is a clear colorless liquid member of the aromatic hydrocarbon family with a benzene like odor. It is an irritant and is highly flammable and is a solvent used in manufacture of P2P and methamphetamine. It is found in paint thinners.

  • 1,1,2-Trichloro-1,2,2-Trifluoroethane (Freon) is a clear colorless liquid with a slight ethereal (ether like) odor. It is a solvent used to extract d methamphetamine. It is an irritant and is toxic by inhalation.

  • White gas is a solvent used to extract methamphetamine. It is a colorless liquid that is flammable. White gas is used as a fuel for camp stoves and is readily available in hardware, discount and home improvement stores.

Home-Made Ammonia

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Photo by Robert Burke
Fixed and portable anhydrous ammonia tanks may be sources of ammonia for the illegal manufacturing of methamphetamines.

Methamphetamine manufacturing is accomplished in several ways, but one that is becoming popular is the use of anhydrous ammonia, sodium or lithium metal and the over-the-counter cold medications pseudoephedrine or ephedrine. Heat may be used, but is not required. Other materials required include coffee filters, solvents and other common items easily obtained. (This is also known as the “Nazi” method because the Germans used it during World War II, when German soldiers were given methamphetamines to allow them to keep going on a limited diet.)

Anhydrous ammonia is heavily regulated and difficult to obtain for clandestine use, so drug makers often resort to theft from commercial facilities or farmers. There is, however, another option: liberating anhydrous ammonia from the common garden fertilizers ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate. Processing the fertilizer using sodium hydroxide and water liberates ammonia gas. Adding heat to the process speeds up the evolution of ammonia. The liberated ammonia gas is captured and condensed to be used for the methamphetamine manufacture.

Making methamphetamines using this method is not without significant hazard. The uncontrolled release of the ammonia gas, which is flammable, into a closed system is hazardous. The risk of a water reaction with sodium or lithium metal creates an ignition source for the flammable ammonia and hydrogen gas liberated from the water. Ammonium nitrate, an oxidizer, coming in contact with organic fuels can be explosive.

Cleanup Concerns

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Photo by Robert Burke
Investigators may need to wear chemical protective clothing while gathering evidence at suspected clandestine drug-manufacturing operations.

The cleanup of clandestine drug operations following an investigation by law enforcement personnel is not a function of emergency responders. Cleanup should be coordinated with the state department of the environment using recommended cleanup contractors. Because some aspects of the cleanup may prove dangerous for contractors, emergency personnel may want to keep a crew on site in case of a fire or release requiring emergency actions.

Personnel entering the contaminated area should only do so using appropriate chemical protective clothing for the hazard present. Contamination may extend beyond the location of the actual drug lab. Ventilation and plumbing systems within hotels, motels and apartment buildings may also be contaminated and require decontamination.

When drug labs are discovered, they become miniature hazardous waste cleanup sites. It is estimated that as much as seven pounds of waste chemicals are produced for every pound of methamphetamine processed. Waste from drug labs is also sometimes dumped clandestinely on roadsides, vacant property, fields and wooded areas. Materials dumped to dispose of evidence can include propane containers, empty two-liter soda bottles, containers for other materials (such as starter fluid, brake fluid, brake cleaner, lighter fluid, rock salt, acetone or camping stove fuel), or miscellaneous glass and other containers. Investigators at the scene of a suspected clandestine drug-making operation need chemical protective clothing and respiratory protection. Hazmat teams may be called upon to assist because of the dangers of some of the chemicals involved.


Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is a veteran of 24 years in fire and emergency services, with experience in career and volunteer departments. He has attained the rank of lieutenant, assistant chief and deputy state fire marshal. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be reached in the Internet at robert.burke@att.net.

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