Responding to Illicit Clandestine Laboratories: Methamphetamine Basics Part 1

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Photo: Yukatan Times- 3,100 pounds of meth seized on the Mexico-US border — the second-largest bust ever

In the first part of a series of articles, a growing issue in the haz-mat community that is a rising trend in the southern states involving response to clandestine lab operations, especially pertaining to the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine. “Methamphetamine, (A.K.A. crystal meth, crank, ice) a particularly potent and highly addictive chemical stimulant, can be produced cheaply and quickly in small spaces using common kitchen equipment and drugstore items. Meth users risk long-term physiological effects such as aggression and psychosis, as well as heart, brain and nerve damage”.

Since the mid 1990’s (And some years before) to late 2005, the production of methamphetamine (Meth) was a large issue in most communities across the country, with the southern regions seeing an influx and high activity of these illegal lab productions being manufactured. “Soon after the passage in 2005 of The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act (CMEA) that places restrictions on over the counter pseudoephedrine purchases, and in part due to a shift of large-scale meth production to Mexico, some communities saw a decrease, until recently small operations have continued to reappear across the south. Small meth clan labs remain a threat to individuals and communities. These labs are run by one or several individuals may turn up in houses, apartments, motel rooms, garages, or shacks and other buildings that appear to not be occupied for residence”. Labs may in fact be rigged with explosive devices set to detonate upon entrance by law enforcement,and other responders in order to rid the area of evidence.

Often times these incidents are handled by law enforcement based teams for initial entry and stabilization of the scene, but in a world of more objectives than available personel or resources, many law enforcement agencies are reaching out to work with local city, county and state hazardous materials teams to assist with decontamination, air monitoring and testing of specific chemicals located inside the various lab locations. While many agencies may run as a “Hazardous Devices Team” through their local law enforcement agencies as bomb technicians and haz-mat technicians, many law enforcement agencies do not have these resources available, and are working with haz-mat teams to establish SOG/SOP’s in response to these calls for service involving labs.

Often times haz-mat teams are an underutilized resource, being forgotten until responding to rail or highway related incidents, or when the “thumb up method” is used on scene. What many law enforcement agencies are now realizing is that there is a lot of double purchasing when it comes to air monitoring equipment, level B suits, SCBA’s, chemical testing equipment and so on. Often times law enforcement is a great resource in providing training, surplus equipment, and even grant money for your team as it eliminates the need for them to send road patrol, SWAT or other officers to training to certify to the hazardous materials technician level. In this article we are going to discuss some of the common tactics, and trends of clandestine labs, specifically for the production of meth, and some training agencies, and various tactical teams by region.

Where was Meth first invented? See our quiz.

The statement is often made that “I don’t know who responds to clandestine labs, and who locates them, but that isn’t a job for the haz-mat team.” A great source of training, and information on response to these labs are your state/regional HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas) task force teams. “The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program, is a federal program administered by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, designed to provide resources to federal, state, local, and tribal agencies to coordinate activities to address drug trafficking in specifically designated areas of the country. The Washington/Baltimore HIDTA was designated in 1994 and serves 49 states, and Puerto Rico”.These are joint task forces formed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and is supported by each specific state’s highway patrol, and various other state investigation and local law enforcement agencies all supply “agents” to staff these task forces, which specifically focus on targeting drug related cases, and clandestine labs. There are plenty of resources out there and these aboved name sources are a good place to contact the specific branch in your state, or by reaching out to your local law enforcement. You can find your local HITDA region by following this link: . The time to establish relationships, and make contacts isn’t at 3am on side of the road on a suspicious substance call in the trunk of a car, but ahead of time as expressed previously.

Next we will look at some considerations of response to illicit labs, and the responsibilities of the haz-mat team on scene. As we know, law enforcement is tasked with many things involving laboratories, and the legalities that come with these operations. Usually SWAT teams, or other law enforcement members are tasked with initial entry, serving of warrants, and securing occupants located inside or on the property of these operations. Let’s consider the key factors found externally of clandestine labs. In most residential labs, these factors can be observed from the exterior and should be considered: Covered windows, vents, high fences around the residence, drop cords running to outdoor buildings or other “shacks” that are not habitable and appear to be run down, large quantities of “junk” such as cars that do not run, piles of trash or burned out places in the yard with metal remains. Animals such as medium to large guard dogs that are free roaming, or appear to be extremely aggressive, piles of metal, multiple used propane or other large cylinders that appear in numerous quantities, cameras and audible gate warning devices to name a few, are all commonly seen at residential labs. Many times the propane cylinders on site can be old, past required testing date, and can appear to be damaged or are showing signs of corrosion.. Once inside often times In most residential labs, there is limited to no ventilation, and small box fans are used to push toxic fumes out, and lighting can be very poor so various lighting sets can often be found. Covered windows often provide means of secondary concealment.

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Photo From Channel 3000: Drug Bust

Large quantities of medication such as pseudoephedrine, or other caffeine based pills can be observed in large piles (80-150 tablet sheets) and oftentimes will be piled up in trash cans or drawers labeled to assist in the lab process. Numerous chemicals can be observed in their original container, or often times will be placed into clear/amber colored jars not labeled, or will have street names listed on the lids, and many hard to acquire chemical agents can be hidden out of plain sight, or placed in black containers with no labels. Once initial entry has been completed, and the scene deemed secure, this is often when the role of a haz-mat team begins to go into effect. Detection/Air Monitoring, Product Sampling, and ventilation normally occurs when entry has been made. Often times there are received reports, or information passed along about possible explosive ordinances, or suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s) substances believed to be located at these operations. Glassware in various sizes, shapes and volume will be found with burn marks, and very specific odors will be observed such as cat urine, “wet dog”, chemical burning smell, or even a distinct odor of human urine. Urine is also a commonly used product involved in the manufacture of meth, and other narcotics and can be bottled, to be used as a form of filtration and other steps in the manufacturing process. Often times dead grass, or corroded gas mains can be noted close to the structure.

Now, we have identified the common identifiers, let’s look at the steps we as technicians must take inside these labs. Before making entry, it is imperative that an incident action plan (IAP/IEP) be established and that you address the following: Incident location, incident type, weather, radio frequency channels, entry teams, EMS Stand by, fire suppression, IC, Safety Officer, RIT/RIC/FAST staffing is a must on these incidents in the event of respiratory device failure. Incident priorities, and tactics for mitigation should also be considered. Before an IAP/IEP is established, consider working together to write the response policies, a few things can be addressed pre-incident vs on scene. Do you have a plan to decon law enforcement personnel who are wearing a duty belt in the event the enter a lab, or get contaminated searching a residence or vehicle? How will you or their respective agency secure their firearms, tasers, etc? Do you have a plan in place to decon each firearm completely, or even K9 officers? Things to consider, are officers do not like to be separated from their firearms, and K9’s can have adverse reactions if approached by someone other than their handler, and a Level B, C or structural PPE will NOT provide bite protection from an dual purpose K9. Plans should be addressed as to how the handler will decon the K9, and himself while maintaining the dog in a orderly fashion. Another thing to identify in the pre-planning stage is addressing which K9’s the agency own that are certified as dual purpose patrol dogs (apprehension/handler protection) versus single purpose dogs (Narcotics or Explosive Detection only, no apprehension/handler certification). Not all K9’s operated will be an issue in decon, and may be deconed independently, but should be outlined in your response policy.

Air Monitoring and detection: When making entry to do monitoring it is important to monitor LEL/UEL, and ensure that you are in a reasonably balanced environment. Ventilation is key, and steps should be taken to ensure that proper respiratory equipment is worn at all times inside these toxic environments. PPE selection is another key element that must be outlined in your IAP/IEP, to address both possible flammability and toxicity concerns found in illegal labs. The question is often brought up, “PPE for entry structural turnout gear, level B, level C, SCBA or APR? These are all good questions, but again should be outlined in your response guidelines. Upon arrival, and scene has been deemed secure, the tactical team should work with the first in haz-mat entry team to monitor the location for various chemicals and gases present consistent with those found in meth labs and determine if a flammable or chemical based atmosphere is present, and then determine if structural turnouts, or level B/C suits should be used.

For respiratory protection, Mine Safety Appliances (MSA) states “For atmospheres where ammonia, phosphine, organic vapors, hydrogen chloride, iodine, and/or methamphetamine particulates are present at levels less than APR maximum use concentration: SAR, CBRN APR or CBRN PAPR is recommended”. This should be based off atmospheric readings, and overall knowledge by the research officer and IC. MSA also states “for atmospheres where methamphetamine particulates only are present at levels less than APR maximum use concentration, SAR, CBRN APR, CBRN PAPR, or riot control canister is recommended”. Also keep in mind that user fatigue, and operational time should be considered to avoid overworking responders as in any incident. Detection instruments also should considered. Many times with the unlabeled substances, worst case scenario there could be upwards of 200 unknown containers in the lab, do you have the time or resources to test each container? What detection/monitoring instruments would you consider using? While we won’t get into many testing options here, they are coming in a break down in the next follow up article, so we will focus on handheld monitoring. When considering initial units to take in, A multigas meter, or a PID (photoionization detector) should be considered. PIDs for measurement of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene and acetone, all commonly found in labs. These instruments can simultaneously monitor for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with low vapor pressures while measuring for combustible, toxic or oxygen-deficient atmospheres. Having tools that provide quick and accurate responses is essential. There are many other detection/monitoring instruments that we can use, but again other options will be covered in future articles..
Within the process of manufacturing methamphetamines, several chemicals are used in steps to complete the process. It is important for responders to be familiar to the awareness level to aid in identifying cook methods. This stages are known as : Precursor Chemicals (chemicals that are essential to the production of a controlled substance and is required for manufacture.) Reagent Chemicals (Chemicals that react upon precursor causing it to chemically change and begin the manufacture process), Catalyst Chemicals (This is what allows the reaction process to occur), and finally Solvent Chemicals (during the manufacturing process, this completes the chemical process).

P-2-P: Phenyl-2-propanone used with methyl alcohol, methylamine, aluminum, ether, sodium hydroxide, and lead acetate produces meth; cook residue is likely to contain toxic and combustible solvents. This method is not commonly used as regulation makes it difficult.

Red P: Red phosphorus combined with iodine produces hydriodic acid. This acid reduces ephedrine or pseudoephedrine to produce methamphetamine. Phosphine gas by-product is toxic when inhaled; combustible, toxic white phosphorus is left behind.

Nazi: The name is derived from this method’s WWII-era German origin; the cook employs ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, liquid anhydrous ammonia (sometimes obtained from liquid ammonia fertilizer) and sodium or lithium. This method is used due to manufacturing speed, purity of finished product and relative low supply cost. Liquid ammonia and alkali metals, lithium, may boil explosively.

Shake ‘n Bake: This fairly new, quick, small-batch method uses pseudoephedrine, ammonium nitrate, water, toxic solvent, lye, and lithium in one container; salt and sulfuric acid react to produce meth crystals. Lithium can react with water or air to produce an explosion or fire; many individuals have been severely burned as a result.

*All above methods are pulled from public sources from major manufactures, and are readily available to anyone online, no private practice has been disclosed*.

When making initial entry for your first team, consider the factors at hand: You have responded to a location (we will use a residential structure form this example) in reference to assist law enforcement with a possible clandestine lab, believed to be used to manufacture meth, inside of a 2 story residential, wood framed construction house with attached garage. Initial reports come in from the law enforcement agency on scene that has just finished up serving a warrant on this residence in reference to illegal narcotic activity involving the manufacture and selling of methamphetamine. You are told that a mid sized lab has been located in the basement, in an unfinished room isolated by a small door that descends down in the dark to the room. There are various containers and glass on the floor with gas mask on the wall. All subjects have been detained and are awaiting decontamination to be transported to the local detention facility.What are your initial actions that will be taken? Please comment on the thread, or in the comments of this post, for your initial actions. Responses will be mentioned in the next article!

I would like to credit the following sources for contributing to the article as well as for quotations used in the article. They are as followed:

MSA: PPE reference guide
Rick Hetzel-Fire Service Support Foundation

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