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Clandestine Drug Labs.

Chemical Time Bombs

The dramatic increase in the seizures of clandestine methamphetamine (meth) laboratories nationwide has created a dangerous situation for private citizens and law enforcement officers alike. Today, encountering hazardous chemicals remains no less dangerous than pursuing an armed suspect.

Police officers receive comprehensive training in many areas of law enforcement. However, very few officers have expertise in firefighting, chemistry, bomb handling techniques, and hazardous waste disposal. Unfortunately, illegal drug laboratories pose deadly threats in all of these areas.

Raiding a clandestine drug laboratory (clan lab) has become one of the most dangerous operations a law enforcement officer can undertake. Officers sometimes refer to clan labs as "chemical time bombs" because they contain highly flammable and explosive materials, lethal chemicals, and even mechanical or chemical booby traps. Law enforcement has found these makeshift laboratories in apartments, hotel rooms, mobile homes, outdoor sites, and in all types of vehicles. As a result, an officer may inadvertently come into contact with such a laboratory when responding to a domestic violence call or even while making a traffic stop.

Since 1995, police records indicate that at least three meth laboratory suspects are killed in clan lab explosions or by poison chemical incidents each year, with many more receiving serious burns or other injuries from clan lab fires. Likewise, an increase has occurred in the number of reported injuries to untrained police officers who investigate or dismantle clan labs. [1]

In addition, reports of property damage and injuries to citizens from drug laboratory disasters have increased throughout the nation. In fact, several apartment complexes and a luxury hotel have burned down as the result of these illegal laboratory activities. For example, in 1997, Kansas City, Missouri, authorities reported fires on an almost monthly basis that originated from the operation of meth labs or the storage of precursor chemicals. In Independence, Missouri, the police chief reported in an interview that at least five deaths have resulted from clan meth lab fires since 1995.

In 1999, more than 99 percent of the clan labs seized by DEA were meth labs. Other illicit drugs like PCP, MDMA, and LSD are manufactured in clan labs, but because of the large percentage of clan labs that produce meth, and its close association with violent crimes, law enforcement investigations have focused on meth clan labs in recent years.

The Methamphetamine Problem Today

Experts considered meth a West Coast problem until 1995, when meth production and abuse began to sweep eastward across the Midwest to the Southeast. In Missouri, meth laboratory seizures increased from 2 in 1992 to more than 600 in 1998. In Iowa, some local police departments have reported that meth-related arrests have surpassed drunk driving arrests.

Statistics demonstrate that meth use and availability have dramatically increased in a short period of time. The Drug Abuse Warning Network indicates that emergency room episodes increased from 4,900 in 1991 to approximately 17,000 in 1997, an increase of 247 percent. [2]

Concurrently, law enforcement seizures of meth and meth laboratories also have increased. In 1999, the DEA participated in the seizure of a record high 1,948 clan labs, the vast majority (99 percent) of which were meth labs. For comparison purposes, this number was 306 in 1994--representing a 537 percent increase in just 5 years. In addition, state and local law enforcement officers raided more than 4,400 such labs in 1999. In fiscal year 1999, DEA arrested 8,680 people for meth trafficking--a 113 percent increase over fiscal year 1996 arrests. [3]

The violence associated with this powerful stimulant has had a devastating impact on many communities in the West and Midwest. Television viewers nationwide watched live footage of a paranoid meth addict who stole an armored tank from a National Guard armory and went on a car-crushing rampage in the San Diego area. Another meth addict in New Mexico beheaded his son after experiencing hallucinations in which he believed his son was the devil. In Contra Costa County, near San Francisco, police associated meth with 447 cases of domestic violence in 1997.

In previous decades, experts viewed meth as "poor man's cocaine" and as a drug abused predominantly by white individuals with low incomes living in rural areas. Today, meth abusers are found in all segments of society and regions of the country, including the previously untouched eastern regions of the United States, with meth use rivaling cocaine as the drug of choice. Meth remains very popular with young people at night clubs and all-night dance parties called "raves." Also, some college students use meth to stay awake and study for exams; athletes may use it to relieve fatigue; and some dieters use it to lose weight.

Effects of Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine, a Schedule II controlled substance, [4] is a central nervous system stimulant and more potent than amphetamines. It has legitimate medical uses for treating some illnesses such as narcolepsy, yet it remains a lethal and unpredictably dangerous drug when abused.

The effects of meth are similar to cocaine, with users experiencing a sense of increased energy and euphoria, but the duration of the high lasts longer--from 6 to 14 hours. Chronic meth abusers usually inject or smoke high levels of the drug every 2 or 3 hours during day-long binges in which they consume the drug continuously. This often results in the abuser staying awake for more than a week and experiencing extreme irritability from sleep deprivation, increased nervousness, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, and violent or erratic behavior.

Methamphetamine Production and Trafficking

In 1994, trafficking organizations based in Mexico began to take control of the production and distribution of meth in the United States. Before this, the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang remained the primary meth traffickers. Although this gang remains active in meth production, they do not produce the large quantities distributed by the aggressive traffickers from Mexico.

Mexican organizations dominate wholesale meth trafficking using large-scale labs to produce the drug in their own country and the southwestern United States. In 1999, the DEA estimated that organized crime groups operating out of Mexico and California controlled 80 to 90 percent of meth production and distribution in the United States. While clan labs in California continue to produce more meth than any other region, thousands of independent U.S. traffickers in the Midwest, with growing numbers in the Southeast, operate large numbers of the smaller "mom and pop laboratories.

Unfortunately for law enforcement, meth is a very simple drug to manufacture. Except for marijuana, meth remains the most abused illegal drug that an individual can make alone. [5]

Unlike many other synthetic-based illegal drugs, it does not take a chemist to produce meth. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of those arrested for manufacturing meth are trained chemists. Meth laboratory operators or "cooks" usually are individuals who have little or no chemical training and simply learned a formula in prison or from the Internet. These small drug laboratory operations make importation and interdiction efforts irrelevant when, with easily obtained chemicals, an individual with the basic knowledge of how to cook meth can independently produce thousands of dollars worth of this dangerous drug.

Chemicals Used to Manufacture Methamphetamine

Although the complete list of formulas, hazards, and chemicals employed to produce meth remains extensive, the vast majority of meth laboratories seized today use a common ephedrine/pseudoephedrine reduction method of manufacturing. This method requires a chemical not produced in the United States; however, laboratory operators can find the precursor chemicals needed in many over-the-counter cold medicines. Some clan lab operators purchase dozens of bottles of these cold remedies in order to extract the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine from the tablets.

Meth cooks sometimes use a formula for production that uses two extremely dangerous and highly volatile chemicals--sodium metal and anhydrous ammonia. Sodium metal can ignite when it comes into contact with water, and anhydrous ammonia is a deadly respiratory hazard. Some clan labs may even contain chemicals such as sodium cyanide, which, if accidentally mixed with another type of chemical found in the same lab, can produce a deadly hydrogen cyanide gas. Clearly, law enforcement teams conducting a clan lab raid always should bring a qualified chemist with them.

Environmental Issues

In addition to the risk of explosive gases, chemical contamination from the hazardous waste of these clan labs poses a serious threat to the environment and consequently to the health of unsuspecting citizens in nearby communities. Each pound of meth manufactured in a clan lab generates up to 5 or more pounds of toxic waste. Clan lab operators routinely dump such waste into local streams, rivers, and sewage systems in order to cover up the evidence of their illegal operations. Moreover, chemical reactions that occur during the manufacturing of meth produce chemical vapors that can permeate walls, carpets, plaster, and even the wooden structures of buildings.

The average clan lab costs $3,000 to clean up. However, large production labs, because of the significant quantities of toxic chemicals and higher hazardous waste disposal charges, can result in clean-up costs exceeding $100,000. Annually, the overall cleanup of these labs costs the DEA and other government agencies millions of dollars. [6]

Clan Lab Safety Training

With clan labs, the risk of explosions, fires, and direct contact with toxic fumes, poisonous gases, and hazardous chemicals always exist. Size does not matter when it comes to the danger level involved in a clan lab raid. In fact, the smaller labs are usually more dangerous than the larger operations because the "cooks" are inexperienced chemists with little regard for safety. In addition to the physical danger, police officers who improperly dispose of toxic waste materials also could be civilly liable under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, thus making clan lab raids an especially risky aspect of drug law enforcement.

Consequently, any law enforcement officer involved in clan lab raids must receive thorough training on safe-handling techniques. To meet this need, in 1987, the DEA created a special training unit for DEA special agents and task force officers on how to safely perform clan lab raids. Federal regulations now mandate that all federal, state, and local law enforcement officers receive at least 24 hours of training on how to handle hazardous chemicals prior to conducting a clan lab raid.

The DEA conducts both state and local certification schools at Quantico, Virginia, and at a training site in Overland Park, Kansas. This 1-week school qualifies state and local police to raid, process, and dismantle clan labs, and it provides instruction on the latest intelligence trends, chemical diversion, and clan lab investigations.

In addition, a specialized DEA unit frequently conducts in-service training and seminars for law enforcement groups. This unit also provides the annual recertification training mandated by federal regulation.

Fundamental Rules of Chemical Safety

Police officers without specialized training in the unique types of hazards posed by clan labs never should attempt to investigate or dismantle these "chemical time bombs." Police supervisors must advise their personnel that, if they should inadvertently encounter a clan drug lab, they should not touch anything, and should secure and evacuate the area immediately. Even those officers who have graduated from a qualified laboratory safety school always should remember some fundamental rules of chemical safety when encountering a clan drug lab.

* Leave the area, secure the location, and notify the DEA or a police narcotics unit with the proper equipment and certified personnel.

* Do not smoke in or near the lab.

* Never touch, taste, or smell any type of equipment or chemicals.

* Always wear the proper safety equipment.

* Always read the safety labels and warnings on seized chemical containers; however, do not rely on these warnings as some suspects may switch the labels or the containers.

* Do not mix any type of chemicals. Some chemicals will ignite, explode, or produce poisonous gas when combined with other chemicals--even contact with water can cause some chemicals to ignite.

* Do not use tools or devices that produce sparks or friction (e.g., flash bangs or some types of breaching devices).

* Do not turn light switches on or off or connect or unplug electrical devices. The electrical spark could cause an explosion if certain chemicals are present in the atmosphere.

* Always fully decontaminate all clothing and equipment when exiting a lab and remember to keep the prisoners' clothing as evidence because a laboratory exam usually can detect chemical residues--further evidence of participation in the manufacture of controlled substances.

* Ensure that emergency medical assistance (e.g., fire department, paramedics, life-flight helicopter) remains available prior to executing the raid. [7]


Without question, the increasing distribution of methamphetamine throughout the United States by international drug organizations remains a serious problem for every law enforcement agency. This threat, compounded by the increasing number of clan labs operated by violent criminal organizations, coupled with a growing number of smaller "mom and pop" laboratories, results in an escalating likelihood that law enforcement agencies across the country will encounter more clan meth labs. Impetuous investigations of these clan drug labs without proper safeguards may recklessly endanger the lives of law enforcement officers.

Special Agent Hargreaves serves in the DEA Methamphetamine Program, Adington, Virginia.


(1.) Compiled from teletypes and field interviews submitted to DEA Operations Division, Arlington, VA.

(2.) National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, Drug Abuse Warning Network; available from; accessed September 10, 1999.

(3.) Statistics compiled by DEA, Intelligence Section, Domestic Strategic Intelligence Group, Arlington, VA.

(4.) Under the federal Controlled Substance Act, regulated drugs are divided into categories, known as schedules, according to their effect, medical use, and potential abuse. Schedule II drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence, have a high potential for abuse, and have a restricted medical use.

(5.) DEA Operations Division, Methamphetamine Program, Arlington, VA.

(6.) Compiled by DEA Hazardous Waste Disposal Unit, Arlington, VA.

(7.) See Tom Manning "Drug Labs and Endangered Children," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1999, 10.
 Products Commonly Found in Clan Labs [*]
Commercial Products Chemicals Hazards
Battery Acid Sulfuric Acid Corrosive Acid
Drain Cleaner
Camera Batteries Lithium Water Reactive
Coleman Fuel Petroleum Distillates Flammable
Lacquer Thinner
Mineral Spirits
Denatured Alcohol Mixture of Alcohols Flammable
Epsom Salts Magnesium Sulfate Nonhazardous
Heet Methyl Alcohol Flammable
Iodine Crystals Iodine Irritant
7 percent Tincture of Iodine
Muriatic Acid Hydrochloric Acid Corrosive Acid
Nonprescription Cold Medicine Ephedrine/Pseudoephedrine Nonhazardous
Red Devil Lye Sodium Hydroxide Corrosive Base
Road Flares Red Phosphorous Flammable
Starting Fluid Ethyl Ether Explosive/Flammable
(*.)This reflects only a partial list of products
commonly found in clan labs. Officers should remember that any
one item does not indicate the manufacture of methamphetamine.

Two suspects in a San Diego, California, hotel room died of poison phosphine gas fumes while manufacturing methamphetamine. Four police officers responding to the emergency call were overcome by fumes and hospitalized.

In Aguanga, California, three children died and their mother received critical burns from an explosion caused by a clandestine drug lab operation in a trailer house.

A woman manufacturing methamphetamine in Kansas City, Kansas, was killed when a drug laboratory ignited and burned down the house.
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Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2000
Previous Article:Princeton.
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