How To Spot A Meth Lab

WRITTEN BY GARY SMITH, APARTMENT BUILDING MANAGEMENT WORKERS COMPENSATION SELF INSURED FUND

Imagine for a moment that your staff has just discovered a clandestine meth lab on your property. How would you handle this situation? Do you know why meth labs are so dangerous? Do you know who is responsible for cleanup? Do you know who to contact for assistance?

What is meth and what does it look like?
Methamphetamine (“meth”) is a powerful central nervous system stimulant with a high potential for abuse and dependence. It is known by a variety of names including meth, speed, crystal meth, crank, and cat. The drug comes in chunk (hard irregular chunks that look like ice or rock candy), powder (generally a white, pinkish or yellowish color), and pill form (either tablets or capsules of various colors). “Ice” is a clear form of methamphetamine that looks like chunks of ice or crystal. It can be snorted, taken orally, smoked, or injected. Ice is usually heated and the vapors it produces are inhaled.

Why is meth and its production so dangerous?
Meth trafficking and production are different than other drugs because they are dangerous from start to finish. The reckless practices of the untrained people who manufacture it in clandestine labs result in explosions and fires that injure or kill not only the people and families involved, but also law enforcement or firefighters who respond. Any number of solvents, precursors, and hazardous agents are found in unmarked containers at these sites. These potent chemicals can enter the central nervous system and cause neural damage, affect the liver and kidneys, and burn or irritate the skin, eyes and nose. Chemical gases and the drug itself are released into the air when made. These chemicals settle out onto walls, floors, furniture and personal belongings. Chemicals are also spilled onto surfaces. People who visit or live in former meth labs can breathe these chemicals and drugs in the air or touch them on surfaces. Small children are more likely to be harmed by these chemicals because their bodies are still developing and because they often touch contaminated surfaces, only to put dirty toys and hands into their mouths.

Environmental damage is another danger of these reckless actions. Each pound of meth produced leaves behind five or six pounds of toxic waste. Meth cooks often pour leftover chemicals and by-product sludge down drains in nearby plumbing, storm drains, or directly onto the ground. Chlorinated solvents and other toxic by-products used to make meth pose long-term hazards because they can persist in soil and groundwater for years. Cleanup costs are exorbitant because solvent contaminated soil usually must be incinerated. On average, it costs $5,000-$25,000 to clean up a meth lab, but a property could be a total loss if buildings have to be demolished.

What are the signs of a potential meth lab so I can help protect my tenants, staff and property from catastrophic damage?
Many people may be unaware that they are living near a meth lab. In Michigan during 2010, 679 meth lab incidents were encountered. Clandestine labs known as “mom and pop” labs are found in rural, city and suburban residences; barns, garages and other outbuildings; back rooms of businesses; apartments; hotel and motel rooms; storage facilities; vacant buildings; and vehicles. Since meth can be made from common ingredients and using readily available equipment, clandestine meth labs can virtually appear and disappear everywhere.

  • Look for these signs of a potential meth lab:
    A strong smell that might resemble cat urine; or an unusual chemical smell like ether, ammonia or acetone.
  • Little or no traffic during the day, but lots of traffic at extremely late hours.
  • Extra effort to cover windows or reinforce doors.
  • Residents never putting their trash out.
  • Lab materials surrounding the property (e.g., lantern fuel cans, red chemically stained coffee filters, clear glass jugs and duct tape).
  • Vehicles loaded with trunks, chemical containers, or basic chemistry paraphernalia – glassware, rubber tubing, etc.
  • Laboratory glassware being carried into the residence.
  • Open windows in cold weather.
  • Residents smoking outside due to fumes.

The presence of these items could also indicate the existence of a meth lab: alcohol, ether, benzene, toluene/paint thinner, Freon, acetone, chloroform, camp stove fuel/Coleman fuel, starting fluid, anhydrous ammonia, “Heet”, white gasoline, phenyl-2-propane, phenylacetone, phenylpropanolamine, iodine crystals, red phosphorous, black iodine, lye (Red Devil Lye), Drano, muriatic/hydrochloric acid, battery acid/sulfuric acid, Epsom salts, batteries/lithium, sodium metal, wooden matches, propane cylinders, hot plates, ephedrine (over-the-counter), cold tablets, bronchodialators, energy boosters, rock salt and diet aid.

Who is responsible for cleanup?
Michigan law makes the property owner responsible for cleanup of a clandestine meth lab.

The owner may need to hire a consultant or a contractor to do the work needed, to be sure all the meth lab contamination has been removed. The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) has developed guidance to help property owners that includes a list of consultants and contractors who can perform meth lab cleanups (refer to Cleanup of Clandestine Drug Laboratory Guidance dated June 5, 2007, with Appendix F updated April 30, 2008).

Last, but not least, if you come across meth activities, STOP and DO NOT ENTER THE PROPERTY. Immediately CALL 911. DO NOT attempt to gather evidence on your own and never handle any materials that may be associated with a lab.

You can also call the Michigan Meth Hotline at 1 (866) METH-TIP [1-866-638-4847]. The call is anonymous and confidential.

For additional resources to help create community awareness, please visit these websites:

Michigan State Police Methamphetamine Resource Site: www.michigan.gov/meth

Michigan Meth Watch Program: http://www.michiganmethwatch.org

Field Guide to Meth Labs (updated July 2010): http://www.realtor.org/library/library/fg324

KCI The Anti-Meth Site: http://kci.org

Brown & Brown supports efforts to make the workplace a safer and more productive environment. For concerns or questions about safety issues contact Wendy Light or Jennifer Moffit at 1-800-467-6645. We welcome your calls and inquiries.

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