The Making of the Meth Mess
by Julie A. Mazzuca, President, Meth Lab Cleanup LLC®
Over the past few years, the illegal production of methamphetamine has increased substantially in many regions of the United States. The manufacture of this drug has caused billions of dollars in property damage and, more importantly, has become a health hazard to people through use and subsequent contamination in homes.
During the meth manufacturing process, chemical compounds become airborne (volatilized) and settle out; depositing onto walls, ceilings, appliances, floors, carpets, and other typical household items throughout the structure’s interior. In addition, chemicals used to make the illegal drug may be spilled during handling. Meth can also be distributed throughout the structure via the use of the drug.
The presence of these chemicals may pose health threats to occupants and potential liability to property owners. Due to the seriousness of this problem, close to two dozen states have adopted regulatory testing and decontamination standards and many more will likely follow suit before the end of this decade.
Properties in which law enforcement has made an arrest or that a health department has deemed unfit, will be posted against entry with signs warning of possible chemical contamination. Occupation of properties where meth labs have been discovered will usually be prohibited until after assessment and/or remediation by a certified clandestine drug lab decontamination contractor in accordance with the law. The posted warning signs prohibit anyone from entering the property unless they are certified to do so.
Many of the properties identified as former meth labs are discovered through means other than by law enforcement. Contamination is often discovered during a property assessment in response to health complaints by occupants, information from neighbors regarding a prior occupant, or as part of a real estate transaction. Meth screenings are often conducted in these cases to gain information regarding potential meth contamination at the property. These screenings are outside the scope of most state’s clandestine drug lab cleanup regulations.
It should be noted that meth screenings apply to situations where there is no evidence of a meth lab. If the presence of a meth lab is known or suspected, then a preliminary assessment must be conducted by a certified clandestine drug lab decontamination specialist in accordance with regulation (if the state is regulated for Clandestine Drug Lab Decontamination). If the screening assessment confirms the property is contaminated then it is subject to the statutory and regulatory requirements for meth lab decontamination.
The National Association of Home Inspectors (NAHI) members agree to perform inspections in accordance with NAHI® Standards, Code of Ethics, and applicable law(s). The Standards are not intended to limit members from performing “additional inspection services.” Many home inspectors in the state of Utah are now offering meth residue screenings as an additional service. These inspectors are testing properties that have not been posted as uninhabitable; properties in which the inspector is testing at the request of the property owner to determine whether any possible methamphetamine use or production activity may have taken place in the past.
Although meth is not the only drug manufactured in clandestine labs, it is the most common. The “cooking” of meth can involve a large variety of chemical reagents (depending on the specific method of manufacture). In general, the process involves precursor reagents, organic solvents, and reactive reagents that facilitate the conversion of the precursor into methamphetamine. The chemicals used are typically purchased, stolen, or illegally manufactured.
Even though many of these chemicals are commonly found in households and can be “safe” when used appropriately, their inherent dangers increase when used inappropriately or in combination with other chemicals during the meth production process. Improper storage and disposal of these chemicals and mixtures also creates hazards.
There are many methods for making meth. Most meth “cooks” use variations of the Anhydrous Ammonia method and Red P lab method that utilizes red phosphorous. Other, less common, methods include the P2P or Amalgam method.
A functioning drug lab presents the greatest risk of adverse health effects for occupants. A site found to be a drug manufacturing site must be considered unsafe for entry, except by trained personnel using appropriate personal protective equipment. Acute illness with immediate onset of symptoms from massive chemical exposure is a significant risk in this situation.
Many of the hazards associated with clandestine laboratories are caused by the ingredients used and the byproducts produced by the lab. For persons making drugs, the most dangerous chemicals include:
– solvents, due to their volatility and risk of fire and explosion;
– corrosive agents, including acids and sodium hydroxide;
– metals/salts and reaction byproducts, such as phosphine gas;
– Concentrations of gases and solvents will be highest during the cooking process.
Solvents like acetone, freon, methanol, toluene, trichloroethane, and xylene are common in meth labs. They can be absorbed by ingestion, inhalation, or dermal contact.
Corrosives, including acids and alkalis (bases), cause chemical burns by direct contact with the skin; by ingestion; and by inhalation. Commonly used corrosives are anhydrous ammonia, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, sodium thiosulfate, and sulfuric acid (drain cleaner).
A potential byproduct, phosphine gas, is extremely flammable and explosive, and is a respiratory tract irritant. Metals and salts routinely found at labs include iodine, red phosphorus, lithium, and sodium metal. These can affect or cause irritation to all major body functions.
During active meth cooking, law enforcement has found that levels of chemicals including iodine, phosphine, and hydrochloric acid used in several of the methods, could exceed current occupational standards. Also, large amounts of meth are also released into theair and have been found at levels up to 16,000 micrograms per 100 square centimeters on surfaces.
More experienced “cooks” vent their off-gasses into kitty litter or floor dry. They fill a bucket or garbage bag with an absorbent and insert production tubing into the absorbent so the smell of the cooking process is masked. These buckets and/or garbage bags filled with kitty litter or floor dry are extremely dangerous (often referred to as “death bags”). NEVER open a bucket or a closed garbage bag and disturb the contents.
Other general concerns include the risk of fires or explosions due to usage of flammable solvents, respiratory difficulties from breathing toxic or corrosive vapors, and skin irritations from strongly acidic and basic solutions. Chronic exposure to methamphetamine production may cause long-term health problems. Drug paraphernalia such as needles present possible exposure to infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B.
Other types of responders (law enforcement personnel, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, firefighters, and hospital employees), those responsible for remediation and individuals re- occupying improperly decontaminated areas, may be at risk from small containers of chemicals that were not removed during the removal of the bulk chemicals and production apparatus.
Chemicals with low volatility would be expected to pose the greatest exposure hazard from residual contamination because of their persistence. Additionally, powders from the drug itself or chemicals used in the manufacture may still be present on various surfaces and pose a risk. If the structure has been adequately ventilated, then inhalation risk from solvents and gases should be low as most would have dissipated.
Extracting Precursor Drug
Use: Cold Tablets, solvents, and coffee filters
Wastes: Solvent vapors, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, binder from tablets, and coffee filters. Solvent evaporates or may be reused.
Red Phosphorus Method
Use: Iodine, red phosphorus, filters, heat, sodium hydroxide, and ether or other solvent (e.g., hexane, toluene)
Wastes: Iodine, red phosphorus, sodium, hydroxide, coffee filters, and solvent. Gases and possible other by-products; Solvent vapors; iodine sublimation
Anhydrous Ammonia (NAZI) Method
Use: Sodium, potassium, or lithium metal, anhydrous ammonia, water, ether, or other solvent
(Heat may be used to expedite solvent evaporation. Exothermic reaction can cause gaseous byproducts).
Wastes: Coffee filters, excess metal
Use: Rock salt or table salt, sulfuric or muriatic acid, filters
Wastes: Excess salt, sulfuric or muriatic acid, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen chloride gas, coffee filters, meth, solvent from above phases, possibly acetone.
After the cooking process has stopped, most of the hazards decrease. In addition, proper removal of the production wastes and bulk chemical supplies eliminates many of the risks associated with clandestine methamphetamine labs. Again, volatile chemicals and solvents such as ammonia, methanol, ether, or acetone will move into air and will be readily removed from the structure by ventilation.
However, some residual contamination created from repeated “cooks” can persist long after all production has ceased. Cooking meth, regardless of the method, will result in the release of ingredient chemicals, the precursor drugs (pseudoephedrine or ephedrine), meth in vapor and particle form, and other largely unknown byproducts. Semi- or non-volatile production chemicals such as acids, bases, and other corrosives, precursor chemicals,and products used or created in the manufacturing processes are more persistent. At this time, it is unknown if methamphetamine re-volatizes to vapor after the initial deposition, but the danger of chemical fires and explosions extends beyond meth manufacture.
Airborne contaminants are absorbed into soft materials including rugs, furniture, drapes, walls and other surfaces and may also contaminate the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system of the structure. Spills are common in meth labs, and may impact floors, walls, appliances, and other surfaces. Chemicals used in the cooking, which may be hazardous, may be dumped down the sinks, toilets or drains in the kitchen or bathrooms and leave contamination in the waste water system.
In addition, smoking meth indoors distributes meth throughout the structure and the structure’s contents. Handling meth, precursors, loading meth pipes or syringes, or packaging the drug for distribution may result in spills onto floors and other surfaces. Another potential safety risk occurs as a result of the “cook” setting “booby traps.” Operators may install security systems (or steal cameras and mount them as if they are in use), have explosives and guns or attack dogs and poisonous snakes -- all have been found at meth production sites.
If you find any of the chemicals mentioned in this article with original packaging or unmarked containers, propane tanks (often used to hold anhydrous ammonia), or any other suspicious material, leave them alone and inform the property owner.
Chemicals may enter the body by being breathed, eaten, injected (by a contaminated needle or accidental skin puncture), or absorbed through the skin. Both acute (short term) and chronic (long term) health hazards may result from exposure to residual contaminants. Acute exposure hazards come from direct contact with product or waste, and inhalation of product or wastes. Burns, tissue irritation and rashes may result from chemical spills and skin contact. Headaches, dizziness, nausea, and other health effects may result from inhalation of vapors. Chronic exposure symptoms can occur when an individual is in contact with a substance over a long period of time (more than one year).
As stated previously, some chemicals used in methamphetamine production present a danger of injury from fire or explosion. In addition, at the lab site there are possible risks of exposure to infectious diseases (e.g., HIV, hepatitis B) in the event of skin puncture by drug paraphernalia.
ROUTES OF EXPOSURE
Risk of injury or toxicity from chemical exposure depends on the chemicals’ toxic properties, quantity, form, concentration, duration, and route of exposure. Systemic absorption of chemicals or injury may occur by one or more of the following:
Before entering the site, then inspector should carefully consider the hazard potential from exposure to chemical residues, confined spaces or other physical hazards, and the use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE). It is the inspector’s responsibility to ensure that all personnel under their supervision (if applicable) have the necessary safety equipment and that their work activities are conducted safely in accordance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations (29 CFR 1926.50 to 1926.65), the construction industry standard and the federal Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) regulations for General Site Worker.
– contact skin exposure; absorption – ingestion (swallowing)
Inhalation and/or skin exposure (absorption) are the most likely routes of exposure for persons entering the drug lab environment. There is the potential of toxicity from all routes of exposure to the chemicals in a drug lab; i.e., ingestion and injection of the drug, absorption of chemicals spilled onto the skin, adsorption of chemicals deposited onto the skin from vapors, and inhalation of vapors. Due to their continuing brain development and special developmental behaviors (such as crawling on the floor and placing objects in their mouths), infants and young children may be at a greater health risk from exposure to chemicals and drugs in methamphetamine laboratories.
Inhalation or skin exposure may result in injury from corrosive substances, with symptoms ranging from respiratory symptoms of shortness of breath, coughing, and chest pain, to burns of the skin. Many solvents are absorbed into the body through the lungs and, if the dose is sufficient, may cause neurological symptoms such as intoxication, dizziness, lack of coordination, disorientation, and nausea. The skin, to a lesser extent, may also absorb some solvents if chemicals remain in direct contact. Ingestion of chemicals will result in the greatest risk of toxicity. If residual chemical is present on surfaces, a child may accidentally ingest these chemicals.
The final methamphetamine product has considerable potential for adverse health effects in the drug user and persons accidentally exposed. Residual methamphetamine present on surfaces may pose a risk to adults with increased risks to small children and pets. In addition, drugs produced in illicit drug labs contain an abundance of contaminants and byproducts that do not have predictable effects on the drug user. Impurities found in some drugs produced in these labs have resulted in severe and permanent neurological disability following intravenous injection.
As previously stated, after the meth cooking process has stopped, most of the hazards decrease. However, some residual contamination created from repeated “cooks” can persist long after all production has ceased. These residual chemicals can be volatilized or aerosolized during the cooking process and deposit on surfaces and in materials. Airborne contaminants are absorbed into soft materials including rugs, furniture, drapes, walls and other surfaces and may also contaminate the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system of the structure. Spills are common in meth labs, and may impact floors, walls, appliances, and other surfaces. Chemicals used in the cooking, which may be hazardous, may be dumped down the sinks, toilets, or drains in the kitchen or bathrooms and leave contamination in the waste water system.
Clandestine drug laboratory properties often contain items such as stained coffee filters, plastic hosing, disabled smoke detectors, weapons, pornography, and drug paraphernalia. Excessive locks on interior doors are also indicators.
Don’t forget, some labs may have “booby traps” in place to make it difficult for law enforcement or others to access parts of the property. Caution should be taken when entering or investigating any property.
None of the properties you enter should have a functioning lab set up or in process. However, if you do encounter a lab set-up, do not attempt to dismantle or turn anything on or off and immediately call local law enforcement and/or the fire department. In most areas of the U.S., fire departments and law enforcement teams have specially trained personnel capable of addressing a meth lab safely and appropriately. Although in some cases, you may encounter products and materials which were overlooked at the time of the arrest. Inspectors should report immediate hazards right away and remove themselves from danger.
Meth lab “cleanup” generally consists of two specific phases of work: removal and remediation. Removal occurs when a meth lab is identified and seized by the state police or local law enforcement, and bulk chemicals, containers, equipment and wastes used in the meth “cooking” process are inventoried, removed, and lab-packed (characterized and packaged securely) by specially-trained police or fire department officers. The state police coordinate the ultimate characterization and disposal of the waste materials in accordance with state and federal hazardous waste management regulations.
Decontamination (i.e. remediation) occurs when a certified clandestine drug lab decontamination contractor removes the remaining household debris and cleans all surfaces using detergents and industrial equipment.
For many years it was thought that a meth lab property could not be decontaminated; which usually led to its destruction. In many areas of the country this is still the common practice.
Now, because of science and technology, many of these properties can be saved for much less than the price of replacement.
NOTE: Most insurance company policies do not cover the damage created by a clan lab. Recently, several law firms are assisting property owners in their attempt at coverage under claims of vandalism or malicious mischief.
“For many years it was thought that a meth lab property could not be decontaminated; which usually led to its destruction. In many areas of the country this is still the common practice.”
If a meth lab was operated for a long period of time, however, and under extreme pH conditions, it could cause damage to the operation of the system. If there is evidence that meth lab wastes may have been disposed into the septic system, field screening of the septic tank must be performed by the certified contractor. Evidence of waste disposal may include the following: witness statements; stained or etched sinks, bathtubs, toilets; chemical odors coming from plumbing or septic tank; or visual observations of unusual conditions within the tank (dead tank); or stressed or dead vegetation in a drain field.
- Inspection of garages, barns, and other outbuildings on the property.
- Identification of adjacent areas/units in multiple dwellings that may require cleaning.
- Identification and documentation of areas of suspected contamination.
- Outdoor inspection for evidence of burn or trash pits, discolored soil, or dead vegetation, indicating possible contamination of water and/or soil.
- Inspector name, signature, and date of the inspection.Meth lab “Cooks” often burn or dump solid wastes outside the structure. The property owner should be notified if evidence of
a hazardous substance related to meth lab activity is observed in
the environment outside the inhabitable property. This includes soil staining, spills, chemical containers with wastes or residues, evidence of burning or burying of meth wastes, suspected water well contamination, stream contamination, or similar condition. All of these instances shall be documented in the inspection report.If visual evidence exists and the laboratory results from the meth samples indicate the presence of methamphetamine residue;
a certified clandestine drug lab technician must be contacted
for further assessment and testing. The certified contractorshall conduct a Preliminary Assessment of the property and all structures on the property. This information will be critical to
how the property should be effectively and safely decontaminated. Additional samples may be collected from surface areas, suspected cooking areas, spills or stained locations, waste disposal areas, the HVAC system, plumbing fixtures, and other locations to determine the most effective plan for decontamination of the property.
This article was developed to outline methamphetamine production, health risks, and provide a general outline for methamphetamine screening. The recommendations come from available information of the known physical properties of the chemicals associated with drug production; current state regulations; and years of field experience in methamphetamine properties.
This is merely an overview of the screening process. Additional training is recommended and online courses are available. Remember that manufacturing methods of methamphetamine and the chemical hazards associated with these activities will change. The exact health effects from numerous byproducts produced by manufacturing these drugs are unknown.
Finally, before signing an agreement to sell or transfer the property, the property owner MAY have to disclose in writing to the buyer (or renter) that the property has tested positive for methamphetamine and they may also have to disclose the status of the remediation. Please check your state’s regulations on clandestine drug lab disclosure and other real estate disclosure requirements. Meth Lab Cleanup LLC’s website is a good source for regulatory disclosure (http://www.methlabcleanup.com). Contact your realtors association for specifics on real estate transaction disclosure.
It is important that you know if you are doing business in a state that regulates testing and clean up. Keep in mind, some county and/ or cities have their own cleanup ordinances. Please check the Meth Lab Cleanup Company (MLCC) website for current regulatory status (http://www.methlabcleanup.com). Contact local authorities for further information on city or county ordinances.
About the Author: Julie Mazzuca has nine years of experience in clandestine drug lab testing and decontamination and twenty years
of combined experience in environmental program and project management, contracting support, and consulting to the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DoD). She has extensive experience in environmental site assessments and regulatory compliance; cost estimating, cost tracking and budgeting; waste management and environmental restoration technology assessments; project scheduling and resource management; and contract administration. Ms. Mazzuca also serves as both the Industrial Hygienist and CEO of MLCC. Under Ms. Mazzuca’s lead, MLCC is the most respected clandestine drug lab decontamination contractor in the nation. ■