METH: THE NEW MOLD – New Markets in Clandestine Laboratory Clean-up [published in IEC 4/30/04]
Jason K. Dobranic, Ph.D. & Scott VanEtten
Clandestine labs have become prevalent across America. They are used for the illicit production of illegal drugs, mostly methamphetamine, PCP, GHB, or MDA (Ecstasy). Some labs have even been found with the raw materials used to concoct homemade bombs. Law enforcement departments have seen a significant rise in occurrences over the last ten years. The hazardous materials found on these premises have to be properly cleaned up. In a three year span between 2000-2002 there were over 7500 removal jobs totally over 150,000 kg of hazardous materials. These labs have been discovered in such structures as single family dwellings, mobile homes, vehicles, hotels, open air structures; in both urban, suburban and rural areas. A thorough understanding of the many challenges involved in working at these sites and properly abating the hazards
Types of hazards associated with clandestine labs Individuals usually operate these makeshift labs with little to no training in chemistry. They employ crude, homemade equipment to accomplish complex chemical
reactions. Due to the nature of the chemicals involved there is significant risk of explosion, fire and exposure. Clandestine lab operators have also been known to carry firearms and use booby traps; due to the paranoid delusions associated with meth usage.
The chemical agents used in the production of illegal drugs can include common household products such as methanol, ether, benzene, methylene chloride, trichloroethane, toluene, muriatic acid, sodium hydroxide, table salt, and ammonia. Some of the uncommon household items used include anhydrous ammonia, red phosphorus, iodine, and reactive metals. The poor handling, disposal, and mixing of incompatible chemicals leads to significant hazardous conditions. Once these chemicals are mixed and used in the making or “cooking” process, the production of other potentially harmful chemicals ensue.
Oftentimes, abatement workers focus strictly on the chemical hazards. However, there may be drug addicts and other visitors coming to the lab expecting it to still be operational. Wandering meth users tend to be dillusional, paranoid and desperate. Your personal protection can be at stake.
Health effects related to exposure
Working in clandestine drug labs poses significant dangers that one must be aware of or serious health effects could develop including the most extreme case of death. Knowledge of basic toxicology is crucial. The effect of a chemical can differ significantly depending on how it enters the body. Entry routes include inhalation, dermal absorption, and ingestion. Inhalation is the most common route of entry since we are continuously breathing. Noxious chemicals that are breathed in can rapidly enter the circulatory system (blood) and get transported throughout the body. Since we are performing manual labor during abatement of the lab our respiratory rate is higher leading to greater exposure. Inhalation exposure also depends on the size of the inhaled particles and the properties of the exposed chemical. Chemicals with higher solubilities tend to get absorbed into the blood system faster. Toxins can also be absorbed through the skin. Although one may not feel pain or discomfort when the chemical contacts the skin, once it is absorbed it can travel throughout the body in the blood. Ingestion is the least likely exposure method but workers should be wary of eating and drinking within the confines of the lab.
Solvents such as acetone, ether, freon, hexane, methanol, and toluene target the eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system, liver, and kidneys causing such symptoms as irritation to skin, eyes, nose and throat; headache; dizziness; central nervous system depressant/depression; nausea; vomiting; and visual disturbance. Corrosive chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide (lye),
sodium thiosulfate, sulfuric acid (drain cleaner) target the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract causing symptoms such as irritation to upper respiratory tract; cough; eye and skin irritation, inflammation and burns; gastrointestinal disturbances; thirst; chest tightness; dyspnea; muscle pain; syncope; and convulsions. Metals such as iodine, lithium metal, red phosphorus, yellow phosphorus, sodium metal used in the process can target the eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system, liver, kidneys, blood, cardiovascular
system causing irritation to eyes, skin, nose and respiratory tract; lacrimation; headache; chest tightness; cutaneous hypersensitivity; abdominal pain; and jaundice.
Sampling and laboratory analysis (basic, short and sweet)
Many States have specific guidelines for clearance testing associated with clandestine laboratories. For clandestine methamphetamine operations, the clearance contractor is usually required to wipe surfaces and send the samples to an accredited laboratory. NIOSH and OSHA have not published validated methods for the analysis of methamphetamine in air. OSHA has published a CSI (Chemical Sampling Information) procedure that utilizes gas chromatography with flame ionization detection (GC/FID). However, most states require gas chromatography with mass spectrometry (GC/MS). Detection limit requirements are sub microgram methamphetamine per wipe.
Samples can be taken from kitchen areas of the home where cooking activities are intensified. The clearance contractor should take samples from the refrigerator (inside and out), the stove/oven, and the gap between the counter and the stove where those nasty little toast crumbs build up.
Testing should also be performed where a wall or floor meets a cold/warmer exterior. The meth will tend to crystallize out at these temperature transition interfaces. HVAC ductwork should be inspected as well for settled residue. The vehicles used in transportation, if clearance is required, may need wipe testing. Dashboards and seats can be wiped and submitted for testing.
When searching for testing services, it is important to make sure your laboratory is aware of the clearance testing requirements for your State’s program. Also, make sure that the required instrumentation is available for use. Lastly, make sure the detection limits will meet your clearance needs.
Other types of laboratory testing may also be required that are related to the chemicals used in the manufacture of the illegal drug. The alchemist cooker may have used a variety of solvents and reactive metals to produce his/her illicit powders. Be sure to consult RCRA and State regulations regarding the testing and disposal of drummed wastes, building materials, carpet, wallboard, ceiling tiles, furniture, and appliances.
There may be toxic materials buried or dumped in the surrounding grounds. A thorough investigation of the entire property is required.
Abatement & Hazardous Materials Handling Guidelines
Only trained personnel should be handling any chemicals. These individuals must be able to recognize chemical names and understand the effect of chemical combinations. Separating any incompatible chemicals can reduce the risk of explosion. Ventilate all confined spaces thereby limiting the concentration of explosive fumes and turn off any heat sources. Make sure all the lab equipment is turned off and no longer heating the
Household materials, including carpets, sheetrock, ceiling tiles, upholstery, and draperies, may become contaminated with chemicals requiring abatement. During cleanup and removal of contaminated materials, workers should have personal protection equipment. This includes eye, hand, and foot coverings. Disposable gloves and a Tyvek jumpsuit are good precautions for direct contact exposure but if toxic fumes are suspected
then a suitable breathing apparatus is needed. More often then not, abatement includes removal of contaminated materials, and scrubbing and painting solid surfaces. Depending on the site and extent of contamination, soil and groundwater may need extensive cleanup. There are no official regulations that dictate how a former clandestine lab needs to be cleaned up but the general steps involved are:
1) Airing out the Building. This will help dissipate any noxious fumes that have accumulated inside allowing safer conditions for removal crews. Depending on the particular situation this may include several days of airing out before, during, and after the remediation process. Using exhaust fans will help the process.
2) Removal and disposal. Clandestine lab operators are not the cleanest or most meticulous people on the planet. Chemicals will be splashed, dripped, and spilled haphazardly around the lab. Any items that are visibly contaminated should be double-bagged and removed. Many of the chemicals will be designated as hazardous materials, falling under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and need to be disposed of properly. Consult with your state department of environmental protection for more information.
3) Inspect surfaces. Walls, counters, floors and ceilings can retain some of the hazardous chemicals long after the lab is shut down. Any surface that has visible contamination, stains, or gives off odors should be completely removed. Any appliances or household equipment used in the processing of any chemicals should be disposed of and replaced.
4) Inspect plumbing. Most of the waste and chemicals are disposed of crudely down the household plumbing system (sinks, toilets, and drains) by the lab operators. The plumbing system may be collecting some of these chemicals and off gassing. A professional plumbing contractor should be contacted to properly address the problem.
5) Encapsulate surfaces. Painting the surfaces of any area that has been remediated will help seal in any residual chemicals that were missed during the cleanup. This effectively reduces the chance of releasing any chemicals back into the air.
6) Clean HVAC system. Chemicals and residues can collect in the HVAC system so they should be properly cleaned. This would include cleaning the ductwork, vents and air returns, and changing air filters.
We hope this gives you an appreciation of what is involved in the abatement of clandestine drug labs. This may be an avenue to further expand your companies business. Unfortunately, due the strong demand for these illicit drug there are surely going be a steady stream of labs discovered and shut down.
Christian, Donnell R., 2004, Forensic Investigation of Clandestine Laboratories. CRC Press.