Clandestine laboratories present huge hazards for all responders who encounter them. Police risk injury and illness responding to the crime scene or investigating suspicious activities. Firefighters expose themselves to hazardous materials as they put out fires or try to deal with contaminated sites.
And EMS providers expose themselves to the same risks trying to treat the responders and the perpetrators, who may have been adversely affected by the materials used and produced in these clandestine labs.
Arthur Musselman, a hazardous materials specialist for the Georgia Police Academy, Drug Training Section, gave a presentation on clandestine laboratory safety and awareness for first responders at the 2009 EMS Expo/Firehouse Central/Enforcement Expo Southeast in Atlanta, Ga.
The session was designed for responders who have little or no experience with clandestine laboratories but may, in the course of their work, encounter meth labs, bioterrorism and explosive labs in all forms.
Musselman said laboratories can be found virtually anywhere from shacks in the woods, to downtown hotel rooms, to trunks of automobiles to apartments in nice suburban areas. But there are clues that responders should keep in mind to help keep them safe.
"If you walk up on something and you see dead squirrels, dead rabbits, dead birds, dead dogs, and hopefully not, dead people, those are clues right there that something is wrong," Musselman said. "If you see dead plants, dead trees, dead grass, dead anything, why are you still there? Back out until you can figure out what's going on and mobilize the resources needed to deal with the situation."
In many hazmat situations, like rolled over tanker cars or industrial accidents, responders can roll up, take out the binoculars and take a look at the placard to figure out what they're dealing with, Musselman. "We dont have that luxury with a clandestine lab," he said.
Responders should also bristle with attention at strange odors or noises, or lack of, which might be clues of clandestine labs.
"Nerve gases kill off insect life very quickly," Musselman said. "So if you're going along and you hear crickets and bugs, and then all of a sudden, stop hearing them as you get closer, that's an unnatural condition that you should pay attention to."
Unexplained and sudden rashes, breathing difficulty and welts are obvious signs of a problem, Musselman said, noting that the goal is to avoid those kinds of things from happening in the first place.
Many clandestine labs are cluttered with seemingly common household goods, like paint thinner, cleaning agents and bleach, Musselman said. The quantity and variety should serve as indicators that responders might not be dealing with just a cluttered house, rather a lab designed to produce harmful products or drugs.
Entering clandestine labs
Clandestine labs are used to produce drugs, biological and chemical agents and explosives and can be established virtually anywhere by anyone with a mission to produce something that is otherwise controlled or illegal, Musselman said.
"There are lots of brilliant, and not so brilliant, people out there with the capabilities of producing a variety of very dangerous substances," he said.
Upon entering a suspected lab, Musselman said responders should be looking for pressure cookers and crock pots, lots of glassware of all varieties, ventilation systems, refrigeration and cooling systems as well as raw ingredients. Also, many labs have decontamination systems and personal protective gear of widely ranging sophistication, from a kiddy pool and garden hose to hazmat suits, and cat litter filtration systems to blower systems with outside air handlers.
"Be very careful when you go into these lab sites," Musselman said. "If you see anything suspicious, back out. It could be an explosive lab, it could be a drug lab, it could be a chem lab."
Responders should also keep an eye open for literature indicating what the suspects might be up to, he said. Many clandestine labs will have things like "The Anarchists' Cookbook," lying around, or might have Jihadists' or White Supremacists' literature Musselman said, noting that all lab folks have a reason for establishing the clandestine operations in the first place. Figuring out what that is might help determine what hazards are being faced.
The unknown nature of the labs is the biggest danger of clandestine operations, he said, noting that the suspects could be cooking up agents for bioterrorist attacks or chemical agent attacks, or making straight up explosives for virtually any kind of attack.
Considering the scene
Taking the time to carefully consider the scene and the hazards is critical to responder safety, Musselman said. Using the right protection, like respirators or SCBAs and the most appropriate PPE for the hazard is equally important.
And, whenever in doubt, stay out and call for the experts, Musselman said.
"If it's the weekend, and it's not a life threatening situation, the best solution is to just secure the scene." He said it's not worth the risk to go in unnecessarily.
Musselman also warned that the hazardous byproducts of clandestine laboratories can show up anywhere, from remote acreage, to hotel waste water systems, to city sewage systems and drains, which present a whole different set of challenges and hazards.
"For every one pound of crystal meth produced, there's five to seven pounds of hazardous waste created," Musselman said. "That's going somewhere."
Above all else, the take-away that Musselman tried to convey is to stay out when in doubt and call for expert help whenever necessary.
"We'd rather come out and check and help out than let someone get hurt or killed," he said.