Clandestine Drug Labs Pose Serious Dangers to Responders

Dec. 15, 2009
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.

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.

Some exterior structural indicators you may see during your initial windshield survey: covered (plastic) or painted windows, chemical odors, and homemade bars on doors or windows, chemical containers and glassware (indoors or outdoors). Stains on walls and ceilings, corrosion of metal surfaces, unusual pipes or ducts coming from windows or walls, fans in inappropriate places, portable generators for outdoor sites, propane tanks with unusual valves or attachments or other types of pressurized containers with unusual valves or attachments. Look for objects and people that seem out of place for the location or time of the call -- if it looks suspicious it probably is. All the above indicators are not proof that you have discovered a clandestine drug lab; they should raise a red flag for the responder to be more aware of their surroundings and the situation they are dealing with.

The top 10 hazards associated with these locations include:

  1. Flammable and/or explosive atmospheres.
  2. Oxygen deficient or toxic atmosphere
  3. Leaking and/or damaged compressed gas cylinders.
  4. Clandestine labs located in confined spaces.
  5. Water reactive and pyrophoric chemicals.
  6. Damaged and leaking chemical containers.
  7. Electrical hazards and sources of ignition.
  8. Reactions - in progress, hot, under pressure.
  9. Incompatible chemical reactions.
  10. Bombs and booby traps.

When incompatible and reactive chemicals are being mixed and cooked in confined spaces, tremendous amounts of hazardous waste can be produced. In addition to the chemical and process hazards present in a clandestine lab, responders need to also be aware of anti-personnel devices (APD) or booby traps. These devices are sometimes designed to protect the lab operator's investment while they are away and also to serve as warning devices to aid in the owner's or operator's escape. Unfortunately, they can also incapacitate responders. Fire responders hould not attempt to approach, handle or disarm a confirmed or suspected APD or booby trap. This is a job for specfically trained personnel.

Response Guidelines

Clandestine drug labs can cause three main types of harm: physical injury from explosions, fires, chemical burns, and toxic fumes; environmental hazards; and child endangerment. Preparation is the key and that includes a clear idea of your actions before the incident occurs. The first step in your preparation is providing proper training to all response personnel. This should include an awareness of the hazards and risks associated with clandestine drug labs:

  • If a drug lab is suspected, local law enforcement should be alerted and the area should be secured.
  • If responding to a working fire a structure or vehicle containing a known lab it is a good idea to conduct rescues, protect exposures and let the chemicals burn. This will depend on your local guidelines.
  • Attempting to control the fire may be very hazardous to the entry team.
  • Runoff may be an issue.
  • In the event of a small fire, use dry chemical or carbon dioxide extinguishers.
  • If initial fire attack is in progress when the location is identified as a lab, withdraw the attack teams and shift from an offensive to defensive operation.
  • Evacuate all structures surrounding the incident and initiate hazmat zones.
  • Discontinue overhaul and leave the structure if chemicals and drug apparatus are found.
  • Decontamination considerations before any entry, especially a responder emergency, needs to be thought out carefully. Focuses on hasty or emergency decon procedures.
  • If a drug lab is found upon entry into a structure or at a vehicle, alert other responder's on-scene without delay and do not touch anything including light switches. Back out immediately and watch for anti-personnel devices and other hazards. If possible bring all occupants out with you.
  • Responders must use care when interacting with a meth user.
  • Remember, you have also happened upon an illegal activity, which is also a crime scene.
  • For first responders who encounter a clandestine lab first, and identify it as such, regular hazardous material response procedures or guidelines should be followed.
  • Most hazmat guidelines dictate that hazard zones are set-up, all response personnel and vehicles are positioned up-wind and all other people be kept out of the area.
  • If your jurisdiction has a hazardous material response team they may also need to be summoned to the scene to assist with decon and setting up the control zones. Upon their arrival brief them with your findings and actions. Support and assist them as needed.
  • Several decisions will need to be made. Unified command is the key!

Please remember to follow local guidelines and procedures. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.

  • Do not touch anything in the lab.
  • Do not turn on any electrical power switches or light switches.
  • Do not turn off any electrical power switches or light switches.
  • Do not eat or drink in or around a lab.
  • Do not open or move containers with chemicals or suspected chemicals.
  • Do not smoke anywhere near a lab.
  • Do not sniff any containers.
  • Do decontaminate yourself and your clothing.
  • Do wash your hands and face thoroughly.
  • Do call your local law enforcement or DEA district office


Safety is paramount for all responders during these types of events. Remember to follow local guidelines and procedures as this article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is impossible to cover all the issues that will need to be addressed during a clandestine drug lab response. Each community should have some type of a plan in place to address these types of events. Hopefully you will gain some information to take back to your agency to assist with your planning and training efforts. The more our public safety agencies prepare, the better they are prepared to respond to effectively manage any type of situation that might arise. The community has entrusted us with their let's prepare now.

AUGUST VERNON, a Contributing Editor, is currently an assistant coordinator for a county office of emergency management. August returned to his position at emergency management after a year in Iraq as a security contractor conducting long-range convoy security operations involved in several IED and combative engagements. He has been employed in emergency management for eight years, also served as a member of the fire service and served in the U.S. Army as a CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) Operations Specialist. August is the author of the new First Responders Critical Incident Guide published by Red Hat Publishing. RICK HETZEL is currently an assistant special agent in charge (ASAC) for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation where he is the assistant team leader for the NCSBI tactical team and supervises the Clandestine Laboratory Response Unit. Rick has responded to over 400 clandestine drug lab operations and tactically entered over 75 labs.

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