The Meth Lab Menace

What responders should know about these dangerous environments

     Once you realize you're in a drug lab, get out as quickly as possible. Watch for trip wires or other hazards as you exit. Try to get a quick mental picture of the area so you can relay as much information as possible to other responders. Move your vehicles, equipment and yourself to a secure area. With victims down, as in the opening scenario, some accident has already occurred, and if the lab hasn't exploded yet, it could be just a matter of time before it does.7

     EMS's main role in this situation will be to provide monitoring and medical assistance to law enforcement, firefighters, hazmat and other responders. Because of the wide array of toxic chemicals potentially present (see Table 1), a variety of health problems can arise. These include respiratory problems, skin and eye irritation, headaches, nausea and dizziness. In the early stages of an incident, police and firefighters may be exposed to concentrations sufficient to cause severe health problems, including lung damage and severe burns to exposed parts of the body.8

     A clandestine meth lab will likely have hazardous, flammable chemicals stored in every type of container imaginable--in closets, under stairs, under tables or even out in the open. Little of the glassware and equipment will be standard laboratory materials. Most will be improvised using casserole dishes, CorningWare, crock pots, etc.; pieces may be broken and have jagged edges, sometimes covered with duct tape. Heaters, ovens or power strips may have frayed or exposed wires. Trash, including empty solvent bottles and boxes of cold medicine tablets (containing pseudoephedrine, a component of meth) will be piled about. In addition to the smell, the second-most notable characteristic of meth labs is trash. This is one of the reasons they go up so quickly in fires.2

     Depending on the form of the drug you want to produce (rock, crystal or powder), there are several methods for synthesizing meth.9 However, the chemicals used are more or less the same. These include common solvents such as acetone, methanol, isopropanol, benzene, toluene, Freon and ether. These can come from common sources like nail polish remover (acetone), fuel additives like HEET (methanol), rubbing alcohol (isopropanol), scientific supply houses (benzene, toluene, diethyl ether) and old air conditioners (Freon). Other solvents that might be present include kerosene, petroleum ether and chloroform.2 These can be exposure hazards through the skin, eye and inhalation routes.

     A variety of gases are used in meth production; these include phosphine, anhydrous ammonia and methylamine, as well as propane for the cookers. These gases can be compressed in small cylinders or in tanks like those used for gas grills or campers.2 The greatest danger from these gases is their explosive potential. Many recent meth lab explosions have been the result of anhydrous ammonia or phosphine gas tank explosions;10 in recent years there has been an increase in thefts of liquid ammonia from agricultural supply houses, where it is loaded into small propane tanks by lab operators. Exposure to anhydrous ammonia can cause dehydration, caustic burning and freezing. Liquid or vapor contact with the eyes causes severe injury and blindness. Liquid contact with skin causes chemical burns.

     Meth labs also have a wide assortment of metal salts and other inorganic compounds present, such as lead metal, lead acetate, magnesium chloride, palladium, lithium, sodium and potassium metals, iodine crystals, red phosphorous and mercuric chloride. These may be labeled or unlabeled. Bottles containing kerosene with strips or chunks of silver or grayish metal present a high level of danger: The metal inside is either metallic sodium or potassium. These metals are kept under kerosene to prevent their contact with air or water. Once they are exposed to either, they react rapidly and violently, leading to a large explosion. The sodium or potassium metal reacts with water to form sodium or potassium hydroxide, hydrogen gas and a great amount of heat.5 The heat ignites residual kerosene on the material, and this causes the hydrogen gas to explode. The resulting explosion can set off other solvents nearby.2