How to Recognize a Meth Lab

Ingredients to Make Meth Can Be Toxic

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, how would you know 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 by themselves.

Here are some of the common chemicals and ingredients that can be used to produce meth:

  • Acetone
  • Anhydrous ammonia
  • Battery acid (sulfuric acid)
  • Brake cleaner (toluene)
  • Cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine
  • Drain cleaner (sodium hydroxide)
  • Freon
  • Iodine crystals
  • Paint thinner
  • Reactive metals (sodium or lithium)
  • Red phosphorus
  • Starting fluid (ether)

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, here are some indicators of a meth lab:

  • Propane tanks with fittings that have turned blue.
  • Occupants of the residence constantly going outside to smoke.
  • Strong smell of urine or unusual chemical smells such as ether, ammonia or acetone.
  • An usual amount of cold tablet containers that list ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as ingredients.
  • Jars containing clear liquid with a white or red colored solid on the bottom.
  • Jars containing iodine or dark shiny metallic purple crystals inside of jars.
  • Jars containing red phosphorus or a fine dark red or purple powder.
  • Coffee filters containing a white pasty substance, a dark red sludge, or small amounts of shiny white crystals.
  • Bottles containing sulfuric, muriatic or hydrochloric acid.
  • Bottles or jars with rubber tubing attached.
  • Glass cookware or frying pans containing a powdery residue.
  • An large number of cans of camp fuel, paint thinner, acetone, starter fluid, lye, and drain cleaners containing sulfuric acid or bottles containing muriatic acid.
  • Large amounts of lithium batteries, especially ones that have been stripped.
  • Soft silver or gray metallic ribbon (in chunk form) stored in oil or kerosene.

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 the outside of the building, such as:

  • Unusual smells
  • Covered windows
  • Unusual ventilation systems
  • Elaborate security systems
  • Dead or burned vegetation
  • Excessive or unusual trash

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 (see Meth Lab Indicators above).

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.

Behavior of Occupants May Be a Clue

Sometimes the behavior of the occupants of a house or building can be clue 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?

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

If You Find a 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 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 Accessed July 2016

National Institute on Drug Abuse, "Research Report - Methamphetamine Abuse and Addiction" Sept. 2006

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, "Drug Information: Methamphetamine" July 2006.

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