Hazardous Materials: Clandestine Drug Labs

Clandestine, or illegal, drug laboratories are not a new hazard to the response community but their numbers are growing at an alarming rate, especially in the center of the country. The state of Missouri, for example, has seen these "clan-labs" numbering in the hundreds over the past several years and now neighboring states are also seeing the same activity. Awareness of this growing problem is extremely important because of the inherent danger to all first responders.

Recently released data from the Centers for Disease Control also echoes the fact that first responders are at risk when they respond to clandestine labs. From the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR 49-page 1021-1024) the CDC reports in the article "Public Health Consequences Among First Responders to Emergency Events Associated with Illicit Methamphetamine Laboratories, 1996-1999" many noteworthy findings involving clan labs. This report accesses statistics from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's (ATSDR) Hazardous Substance Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) program.

From 1996 to 1999 there were 23,327 total incidents involving hazardous substances as reported by 16 states. HSEES also reports that 112 events (0.5%) were associated with methamphetamine (meth) labs with all of these events occurring in the five following states; Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, and Washington. Additionally, these 112 events at meth labs produced 155 total injuries with 79 occurring to first responders. In other words, 51% of all injuries at meth labs happened to first responders.

The breakdown of 79 injuries to first responders is as follows:

  • 55 (69.6%) - Police
  • 9 (11.4%) - Emergency Medical Technicians/Paramedics
  • 8 (10.1%) - Firefighters
  • 7 (8.9%) - Hospital employees

The majority of the injuries were respiratory irritation (54.1%) and eye irritation (10.8%). No personal protective equipment was worn on 85.1% of the first responder victims at these meth labs with police officers accounting for 78.9% of this total. The most common hazardous materials that caused injury were anhydrous ammonia (33.3%) and hydrochloric acid (30.6%). Analysis of this data reveals that firefighters were least likely to be injured at meth labs because they were likely wearing PPE during these events. More information on this report can be obtained at www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/pgdstart.

It is a cold, hard reality that these drug labs are here and maybe right under our own noses. Firefighters next response may be to one of these dangerous clan-labs so it is imperative to become prepared. As the data show first responders are at risk for injury during events at illicit meth labs. Even though meth lab events account for a small percentage of total incidents they were more likely to result in injuries. It is also noteworthy that while most illegal labs are discovered by Drug Enforcement Administration personnel or local law enforcement efforts, 20 to 30% are found because of explosions.

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, especially rental trucks. Commonly, they are found in remote areas because the odors that emanate from these labs reveal their operation.

It is important to realize that there are many illegal drugs that are produced at clan labs. Examples include; LSD, PCP (Angel Dust or Crystal), Phenyl-2-Propanone (P2P), MDA/MDPP ("ecstasy"), Methaqualude, Methcathinone ("Cat") and Fentanyl. Perhaps the most common illegal drug that is made in clan labs is methamphetamine which is a central nervous system stimulant. Meth users may become agitated and feel "wired." Their behavior may be very unpredictable and they may not sleep for days at a time while on a meth binge. One batch of meth can provide several thousand dollars to the maker and the raw ingredients cost only about $200 per batch.

Many of the hazards associated with making illegal drugs are derived from the ingredients, many of which are hazardous substances. Some are raw products or pure chemicals but many ingredients come from over-the-counter products such as cold medicine, dietary supplements, and even Drano. When these products are released they can harm responders through inhalation or skin contact. Common chemicals used to manufacture meth include:



Found In


found in paint thinner


found in gas tank anti-freeze "Heet"

Ethyl Ether

found in starting fluid

Anhydrous ammonia

found at farmer's co-ops

Hydrochloric acid

found in hardware stores


found in cold medicine or dietary supplements

Sodium hydroxide

found in "Drano" or Red Devil Lye

Sulfuric acid

found in battery acid or drain cleaners

Iodine crystals

found in iodine crystals or tincture of iodine

Red phosphorous

found in striker plates


found in camera batteries


As you can see substances that are used in meth labs are corrosive, flammable, or toxic. Equipment used to make these drugs include jars, chemical bottles, propane tanks with green fittings (from ammonia reaction with brass fitting), cans of Coleman fuel, glass cookware, heating plates, coffee filters, and glass or plastic tubing.

There are three common methods of making meth, and some are more dangerous than others. A common by-product of making meth is hydrogen gas which is very flammable and can explode if the gas is confined. The dangers of making meth is described in a very interesting book written by Dale Brown in 1998 entitled "Tin Man." Even though it is fiction, Brown details with great accuracy as a result of his research, the process of manufacturing methamphetamine. The prologue of the book describes the "pour and run" method where diet pills containing ephedrine are dissolved in chloroform and thionyl chloride to produce sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gas along with chloropseudoephedrine, which is a white solid. This material is then hydrogenated by mixing it with palladium black and hexane in a pressurized tank. This final step evolves hydrogen gas and the crystal powder known as meth or "speed," or "crank." The crystal is then washed with ether for purification and is then ready to be sold. A very dangerous process indeed. In the book the portable cooker explodes as a result of the hydrogen gas being ignited by the heating equipment used in the process. This is where the firefighters come in.

As was stated earlier, clandestine drug labs are not new problems to first responders. A very informative article entitled, "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 that was authored by Wilbur Walls. Over 30 years ago the first responder community was warned of the dangers of these illicit operations by the above article.

While many of the early labs were discovered on the West Coast in the 1960's and 1970's their numbers have gradually increased and moved east. We now know the most prolific state for illegal drug labs over the last several years is Missouri but there is evidence of drug lab production in the Mid-Atlantic States and even as far North as New England. As recent as 1998 meth labs were discovered in New Jersey, Delaware, and Massachusetts. According to the U.S. Department of Justice-Drug Enforcement Agency there were 1,654 total clandestine drug lab seizures in 1998 with over 98% being meth labs. Missouri led the list with 371, followed by Arizona and California with 228 and 164 respectively. (For a complete report of DEA drug lab seizures go to the Drug Enforcement Administration Website at http://www.justice.gov/dea/index.shtml).

In addition to the chemical and process hazards at a clandestine lab, responders need to also be aware of anti-personnel devices or "booby traps." These devices are designed to protect the lab owner'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 are also designed to incapacitate responders.

Weapons are common at illegal labs and explosives have even been found connected to trip wires which are usually made of monofilament fishing line. Be alert to dangerous animals such as guard dogs that have been trained to kill or even venomous snakes. Additionally, physical hazards such as holes in the floor that have been concealed, spring devices with exposed nails or sharp objects, and buckets of gun powder filled with nails set to ignite and explode after trip wires are activated, have all been found at clan-lab seizures.

There are also chemical anti-personnel devices such as acid containers propped up over doorways, pipe bombs, grenades, aluminum foil balls containing explosive mixtures, and even acid jars that tip their contents onto potassium cyanide crystals when personnel enter through closed doors. (This chemical reaction produces hydrogen cyanide gas.)

With all of the above in mind and given the fact that these types of labs are cropping up at an increased rate it is only a matter of time before firefighters encounter such an incident. Preparation is the key and that includes a clear idea of actions before the incident occurs.

Obviously, the first step in preparation is providing proper training to all response personnel. This should include an awareness of the hazards and risks associated with clandestine drug labs. All personnel need to be aware of the signs of a potential drug lab (security, guard dogs, odors, recent explosions, etc.) before an entry is made. Identification of the type of incident is imperative. Proper personal protective equipment is also very important before any entry. Decontamination considerations before any entry, especially in case of a responder emergency, needs to be thought out carefully. If a drug lab is suspected local police should be alerted and the area should be secured.

If a drug lab is found alert other responders on scene without delay, and do not touch anything including light switches. Back out immediately and watch out for trip wires and other anti-personnel devices. Take mental notes of what you see to relay to legal authorities. Items such as types of containers and quantities, labels, active processes, etc. should be noted. Remember, any illegal activity makes this a crime scene and preservation of the scene and the evidence is important in order to properly try and convict the drug lab operators. The chain of evidence is extremely important and so is your presence of mind. Avoid panic at all cost.

For first responders who encounter a clan-lab first, and identify it as such, regular hazardous material response procedures or guidelines should be followed. Most hazmat guidelines dictate that hazard zones be set-up, all response personnel and vehicles be positioned up-wind and all other people be kept out of the area. Local police need to be called for assistance with traffic and site control. Refer to the Department of Transportation Guidebook for assistance with response actions. A hazardous material response team they also need to be summoned to the scene. Upon their arrival brief them with your findings and actions. Support and assist them as needed.

As far as hazmat team involvement there are several considerations before taking action. First of all, is it an emergency that requires the action of your team? If it is in fact a drug lab with possible anti-personnel devices your entry may be precluded due to undue risk to your personnel. Also, have your team members had proper training to respond safely to a drug lab? The old adage applies here; if you have not had the proper training to do the job safely you should not do it. Have your team members had training in methods of preserving the evidence trail? Unless you can answer all of the three questions above with an unqualified "yes" you would be better off not committing to a drug lab response. Call and wait for more qualified personnel.

So what are the alternatives to responders across the country? The United States is divided into DEA regions in which private response companies are contracted for clandestine lab seizures. These contractors, with fully trained personnel, respond at the DEA's request to properly package chemicals at the lab and assist in the evidence collection efforts. Quite often, these contractors are called to the drug lab scene without local hazmat teams even being aware of the operation. All contractor personnel must have background checks in order to qualify as a DEA contractor. These private responders have extensive experience and have provided the service for the DEA for many years. They can be called to the scene through the DEA.

Because incidents involving clandestine drug labs will become more common (especially in the central United States) it behooves us to be prepared. All first responders need proper training to include clan-lab awareness and hazards and especially what to do when confronted with a clan-lab incident. Safe and prudent standard operating guidelines need to be developed and conveyed to all personnel. Work with local police authorities and DEA officials along with the region's DEA contractor to better effect a safe outcome at clandestine drug lab incidents.