How to Recognize a Meth Lab

There are some tell-tale signs that illegal drug activity is occurring

CSI at Meth Lab
Was Your House a Meth Lab?. © Getty Images

The ingredients used to make methamphetamine in clandestine laboratories are generally household products that by themselves present little danger, but when combined can have serious toxic and explosive effects.

If you came in contact with a methamphetamine lab operation, would you recognize it? What ingredients and equipment would be present? What should you do if you find a meth lab?

Ingredients of Meth

Most of the chemicals used to make methamphetamine are not dangerous, but some of them are hazardous.

They can include everything from acetone to drain cleaner to cold tablets. Battery acid, paint thinner, and freon (yes, like you'd find in an air conditioning unit) are possible ingredients too. 

If you see any of the above ingredients stockpiled in greater than usual amounts, it could be an indication that someone is operating a meth lab.

Meth Laboratory Indicators

The equipment and processes used to produce meth can also reveal the existence of a clandestine methamphetamine laboratory. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, there are some things to look for that may seem innocent enough at first glance, but which may indicate a meth lab is nearby.

Here are a few tell-tale signs:

  • Propane tanks with fittings that have turned blue, an unusual amount of cold pills containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, and coffee filters with a white pasty substance or shiny white crystals 
  • A strong chemical odor. Sometimes it can smell like urine.
  • Glass cookware or frying pans with powdery residue, bottles with rubber tubing attached and other chemicals 

Many of the above items are found in normal household products, but if they are gathered together in higher than usual amounts, it could indicate meth production activity.

Recognizing a Meth Lab From the Outside

If there is a meth lab inside a building, there may be some indications that can be observed from outside.

The meth-making process produces strong odors and toxic fumes which the makers will try to ventilate by any available means, even if it means opening windows in cold weather or installing fans and blowers, which makes the smell detectable outside the building.

Meth makers will also dump toxic chemical waste outside which can cause dead spots or burned areas in the grass and vegetation. They also produce a great deal of trash which contains unusual items.

Meth producers are breaking the law, so they will sometimes set up extensive security measures, some of which can be seen from outside, such as video cameras, baby monitors, "no trespassing" or "keep out" signs, and possibly guard dogs.

Meth Lab Occupants May Provide Clues

Sometimes the behavior of the occupants of a house or building can be clues to the illegal activity going on inside. You might see occupants of a building containing a meth lab:

  • Exhibit paranoid behavior
  • Stay inside for extended periods
  • Smoke outside to avoid explosions
  • Have frequent visitors especially at night
  • Take their garbage to another location

What About Shake-and-Bake Meth-Making?

The one-pot or "shake and bake" method of producing methamphetamine may produce a smaller amount of the drug, but can be even more dangerous.

Because of the pressure that builds up inside the containers used, they can explode, badly burning or even killing the meth-maker.

The process uses many of the same ingredients and produces the same trash as a regular meth lab (see above), just not as much of it. The containers used (typically two-liter soda bottles) are left with a brown chemical stain inside.

Because the shake-and-bake method can be done anywhere—even in a vehicle—there is not much evidence left of the activity except the trash left behind and the discarded containers.

What to Do if You Find a Meth Lab

Do not touch anything in the lab area and do not sniff any containers.

Do not turn any electrical power switches or light switches on or off. Do not open or move any of the containers with chemicals in them.

Whatever you do, do not smoke, eat or drink anywhere near a suspected methamphetamine laboratory.

If you come in contact with a meth lab, you should decontaminate yourself and your clothing as quickly as possible, wash your hands and face thoroughly, and call your local authorities.

Cleaning up a clandestine​ meth lab is a dangerous and complicated process which should be handled by trained professionals. Do not attempt to clean up or dispose of a suspected meth lab yourself.

Sources:

Illinois Attorney General. "Recognizing a Structure Containing a Meth Lab -- From the OUTSIDE." Recognizing Meth.

National Institute on Drug Abuse, "Research Report - Methamphetamine Abuse and Addiction" Sept. 2013

U.S. Dept. of Justice, "Methamphetamine Laboratory Identification and Fast Facts." 

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