Meth Production Site: Not Really a Laboratory

Sites that produce methamphetamine may be called laboratories, but they bear little resemblance to legitimate pharmacologic laboratories.3 The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) defines a clandestine laboratory as “an illicit operation consisting of a sufficient combination of apparatus and chemicals that either has been or could be used in the manufacture or synthesis of controlled substances.” In a methamphetamine laboratory, the “cook” often handles ignitable, corrosive, reactive, and toxic chemicals in the presence of an open flame or heat source. (See What Is Methamphetamine?) Some of these substances are extremely harmful or lethal when inhaled or touched; others react violently when they are heated, immersed in water, exposed to air, or combined. Although clandestine labs use a number of manufacturing methods, all produce volatile chemicals and toxic vapors that present significant health and safety hazards to the meth cook, children, and others who enter the site, including law enforcement personnel and other members of the response team. People in the surrounding community also may be at risk. The long-term effects of exposure to some of these substances have not been established. However, many of these chemicals are known to damage vital body organs or to cause cancer and other adverse health conditions.

Illegal meth laboratories can be set up wherever activities may be hidden from view, often in locations that are especially dangerous to children, such as sleeping areas, eating areas where food is also stored and prepared, and garages.4 These makeshift labs and their dangerous components (for example, chemical containers and electrical wiring) have been discovered in vehicles of all types, hotel and motel rooms, storage lockers and units, mobile homes and surrounding areas, apartments, ranches, houses, campgrounds, rural and urban rental properties with absentee landlords, abandoned dumps, restrooms, houseboats, and other locations. Meth can be produced in as few as 6 to 8 hours using apparatus and cookware that can be dismantled rapidly and stored or relocated to avoid detection.

What Is Methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine, or meth, is the fastest growing drug threat and the most prevalent synthetic drug manufactured in the United States. Refined manufacturing has significantly increased meth’s strength. Called crank, speed, go fast, ice, or crystal, methamphetamine can be injected, snorted, smoked, or ingested orally. Meth is usually a white, odorless, bitter-tasting powder that dissolves easily in water. Crystal meth is often clear; it is found in large chunky crystals that are smoked. Methamphetamine users initially experience a short, intense rush that is followed by a sense of euphoria lasting up to 8 hours. Methamphetamine use increases heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and rate of breathing. It produces extra energy and stamina, an increased libido, a sense of invulnerability, and a decrease in appetite. Chronic, high-dose methamphetamine abusers may exhibit increased nervousness, paranoia, schizophrenia-like symptoms, irritability, confusion, and insomnia. Violent and erratic behaviors frequently occur in the last phase of meth bingeing. Withdrawal from high doses of meth invariably produces depression, which varies in severity and duration but may last for months or even years.

This highly addictive, synthetic central nervous system stimulant is produced using chemicals extracted from readily available products. These products include over-the-counter cold medicines and diet pills and household products like lithium camera batteries, matches, tincture of iodine, and hydrogen peroxide. Flammable household products, including charcoal lighter fluid, gasoline, kerosene, paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, and mineral spirits, may be used in the mix. Corrosive products, such as the muriatic acid used in pools and spas, sulfuric acid in battery acid, and sodium hydroxide from lye-based drain cleaners, also may be used in the manufacturing process. In rural areas where anhydrous ammonia is used as a fertilizer, farmers are increasingly finding their ammonia tanks have been tapped by “cooks” using this highly toxic chemical to produce meth.

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Children at Clandestine Methamphetamine Labs: Helping Meth's Youngest Victims
June 2003