Coping with Meth Lab Hazards

Seizure and cleanup of the labs pose serious risks for law enforcement and cleaners.

ONE of the most significant challenges today faced by law enforcement and professional cleaning companies is methamphetamine laboratory seizure and cleanup. These makeshift and chemically "dirty" facilities pose real health risks for those required to enter and clean these areas.

From January 2000 through June 2004, 16 state health departments reported 1,791 incidents associated with methamphetamine production. Thirty-one percent of those events resulted in injuries. Of these injuries, 531 were police officers and 314 were private citizens. There were nine fatalities. Twenty percent of the injuries involved children.1

Methamphetamine, an addictive stimulant that strongly activates certain systems in the brain, is chemically related to amphetamine, but the central nervous system effects of methamphetamine are greater. Both drugs have some limited therapeutic uses, primarily in the treatment of obesity. Methamphetamine has a high potential for abuse and addiction. Street methamphetamine is referred to by many names, including "meth," "speed," and "chalk." Methamphetamine hydrochloride, clear chunky crystals resembling ice that can be inhaled by smoking, is referred to as "ice," "crystal," and "glass."

A 2002 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated that more than 12 million people age 12 or older (5.3 percent) had used methamphetamine at least once in their lifetimes. In 2003, 32 percent of state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide identified methamphetamine as the number two contributor--behind cocaine (50 percent)--to violent crime in their jurisdictions.

Methamphetamine Manufacture
Methamphetamine is made in makeshift illegal laboratories using ingredients often purchased in local stores. Over-the-counter cold medications containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine and other materials can be "cooked" to make the drug. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), methamphetamine production and trafficking have changed in the past 10 years. Earlier, the trade was controlled by independent laboratory "operators," such as outlaw motorcycle gangs. Production was centered primarily on the West Coast. Today, Mexican drug trafficking organizations have become dominant in manufacturing and distribution in cities primarily in the Midwest and West, producing in "super labs." These are defined by their ability to produce 10 or more pounds of methamphetamine in a single production cycle. In 2001, U.S. law enforcement officials seized 303 super labs. That same year, according to the National Clandestine Laboratory Database, there were 8,290 methamphetamine laboratory seizures. From 1999 to 2004, the number of seizures overall actually declined, but seizures dramatically increased in midwestern states.

Chemical Hazards During Synthesis
There are many recipes used to synthesize methamphetamine. Most techniques are dependent on availability of bulk chemicals. Because the structures of ephedrine and methamphetamine are very similar, many recipes are designed to remove a bound oxygen and hydrogen atom from the ephedrine and replace it with hydrogen. The three most common methods of methamphetamine synthesis encountered by law enforcement are the "Red P," "P2P," and "Birch Reduction" methods.12

  • The Red-P method produces methamphetamine by combining ephedrine or pseudoephedrine with red phosphorous, iodine crystals, and water.
  • The P2P method involves phenyl-2-propanone reacted with methylamine, mercuric chloride, alcohol, and aluminum foil.
  • The Birch Reduction method combines anhydrous ammonia and lithium or sodium metal with ephedrine or pseudoephedrine.

Solvent extraction and precipitation techniques are generally used in all of these techniques. Several potentially dangerous chemicals and chemical compounds are used in the various processes.

Anhydrous ammonia
Pseudoephedrine tablets are dissolved in a solvent, then the ammonia and reactive metal are added to the mixture. The remaining solids are dissolved and precipitated out with hydrochloric acid. Concentrations of anhydrous ammonia can easily exceed NIOSH Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) limits during this process.2,3 The substance is corrosive to the eyes, the skin, and the respiratory tract.13

Hydrochloric acid
Used in all three processes, hydrochloric acid can also be a byproduct from the reaction of ephedrine chloride's being converted to methamphetamine. Concentrations of HCl should be assumed to exceed IDLH limits during synthesis of methamphetamine.2,3 The substance is corrosive to the eyes, the skin, and the respiratory tract.13

Phosphine is a byproduct of the red phosphorous method and may be produced by other recipes that use phosphorous compounds. Phosphine exposures from methamphetamine labs have resulted in fatalities and injuries. Concentrations should be assumed to exceed IDLH during methamphetamine synthesis using phosphorous.2,3 Short-term exposure to phosphine is severely irritating to the respiratory tract. Phosphine can affect the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, heart, gastrointestinal tract, liver, and kidneys, resulting in impaired functions.13

Iodine is used in the red phosphorous method and also in other recipes. Concentrations will exceed Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) during methamphetamine synthesis and may exceed IDLH levels.2,3 Iodine is severely irritating to the eyes and the respiratory tract and skin. Inhalation of the vapor may cause asthma-like reactions and fluid in the lungs. The effects may be delayed. Iodine may affect the thyroid.

Methylamine is a gas at normal room temperature and is a primary component in the P2P method of synthesizing methamphetamine. Concentrations can easily exceed IDLH levels when the gas is released into enclosed areas.12 Methylamine is corrosive to the eyes and the respiratory tract. Inhalation at high concentrations may cause fluid in the lungs, and the effects may be delayed.13

Mercuric chloride
Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal. Mercuric chloride is used in the pesticide industry and is a component of the P2P method of methamphetamine synthesis. It poses short- and long-term health effects to people exposed to it. Mercuric chloride irritates the eyes and is corrosive to the skin and the respiratory tract. Inhalation of vapor or aerosol may cause fluid in the lungs. The substance may adversely affect the cardiovascular system.13

In addition, some chemicals used in methamphetamine synthesis are highly flammable. Improper storage, use, or disposal of such chemicals often leads to clandestine laboratory fires. In 2003, the National Clandestine Laboratory Database reported 529 methamphetamine laboratory fires or explosions nationwide.

These toxic chemicals are also often discarded in rivers, fields, and forests, causing environmental damage and high cleanup costs. ONDCP estimates indicate the production of one pound of methamphetamine creates five to seven pounds of toxic waste. The costs associated with cleaning up after methamphetamine producers in 2002 was pegged at $28.3 million. Considering the toxic soup used to create the drug, one can readily understand the dangers posed to those who seize and clean up methamphetamine labs.

Health Effects for First Responders
Several studies involving law enforcement personnel responding to and investigating clandestine laboratories have shown significant evidence of adverse short- and long-term health effects. Primary effects are to the respiratory system.5-7

A study published in 2001 in Clinical Toxicology details the first documented case of symptomatic occupational phosphine exposure in a law enforcement official. This case involved a 28-year-old forensic scientist exposed to phosphine during an investigation of a methamphetamine lab while not wearing respiratory protection. Estimated exposure concentration was 2.7 ppm for 20-30 minutes. The subject developed initial symptoms of dizziness, dry cough, headache, and diarrhea. She was examined within 90 minutes of exposure and released. One week later, she developed a chronic cough that increased during exertion, did not respond to treatment, and lasted nine months.5-8

In another study of chronic health effects in 40 drug lab investigators during a seven-year period, researchers found decreased lung capacity in many of the investigators exposed to toxic chemicals that was more pronounced in investigators who tended not to wear respiratory protection.7

Cleaning up illicit laboratories generally falls under local, state, and federal environmental agencies. Although concentrations of chemicals should generally be lower in an inactive laboratory, it should be assumed that concentrations greater than IDLH are present until proven otherwise. Cleanup involves removing, neutralizing, and cleaning up spills of chemicals used in the synthesis. It also involves cleaning up methamphetamine residue itself. Moreover, most of the surrounding area of an illicit laboratory will be heavily contaminated with the drug, as well.4

Surface contamination in illicit labs and the surrounding area can be substantial. The entire area of an illicit methamphetamine laboratory should be considered significantly contaminated with the drug itself. One study reported wipe sample concentrations as high as 16,000 micrograms per 100 square centimeters (µg/100cm²). Significant concentrations were also found in areas away from the primary synthesis area.2,3

Personal Protection
OSHA's Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard, 29 CFR 1910.120, requires a minimum of Level B personal protection when entering an unknown atmosphere. Level B protection is generally deemed appropriate when conditions require a high level of respiratory protection because of an inhalation hazard but require less skin protection because chemicals harmful to the skin or capable of absorption through the skin are not present as a splash or immersion hazard or in high concentrations in atmospheric contaminants. Level B consists of a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), splash-resistant chemical suit, chemical-resistant gloves, and boots.

If a higher level of skin protection is required, Level A protection is used. Level A is a designation for the highest level of PPE required during an emergency response. This generally includes a totally encapsulated layer of clothing, together with self-contained respiratory equipment.

Level C protection is generally deemed appropriate when air-purifying respirators, such as full-face negative pressure respirators or powered air-purifying respirators, can be used.

OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134 (or its State Plan equivalent), mandates that all employees required to wear a respirator be included in a written respiratory protection program that details workplace-specific procedures. Key procedures that must be addressed in the program are the proper selection of respirators, medical evaluation of employees required to wear the respirators, fit testing, proper use and maintenance of respirators, training, and an annual evaluation of the program. The standard requires that only NIOSH-approved respirators be used.

A self-contained breathing apparatus is an atmosphere-supplying respirator in which the breathing air source is carried by the user. There are a wide variety of SCBAs, ranging from 15-minute escape models to industrial models and those designed for firefighting. The primary limitation is duration of the air tank.

Air-purifying respirators (APRs)
Air-purifying respirators consist of negative pressure half and full-face models. APRs purify the breathing air by passing it through a filter designed to remove the contaminant either by filtration or absorption.

Regulatory Activity9-11
Regulatory activity regarding methamphetamines is very high on the federal and state levels. Many states have implemented or are in the process of implementing cleanliness standards. Almost all standards have established maximum exposure levels ranging from 0.05-0.1 µg/100cm².

Much of the legislation at the state levels also contains language for medical surveillance of first responders who have entered illicit laboratories.

At the federal level, both the House and the Senate have introduced numerous bills addressing illegal methamphetamine laboratories. In December 2005, the Methamphetamine Remediation Research Act of 2005 was passed by the House and sent to the Senate. This bill would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to establish voluntary guidelines for the remediation of former methamphetamine laboratories, including guidelines regarding preliminary site assessment and the remediation of residual contaminants, and a program of research to support the development and revision of such guidelines. It also would require the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology to support a research program and develop new methamphetamine detection technologies, with an emphasis on field test kits and site detection, and appropriate standard reference materials and validation procedures for methamphetamine detection testing.

Appropriate respiratory protection and other personal protective equipment are key components in reducing the risk of adverse health affects for personnel entering and cleaning up methamphetamine laboratories.

This article appeared in the November 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.


  1. Centers for Disease Control. 2005. MMWR. Acute Public Health Consequences of Methamphetamine Laboratories--16 States, January 2000-June 2004. MMWR Weekly, April 15, 2005/54(14); 356-359.
  2. Martyny, J.W., Van Dyke, M., McCammon, C.S. Erb, N., Arbuckle, S.L., "Chemical Exposures Associated with Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratories Using the Hypophosphorous and Phosphorous Flake Method Of Production." National Jewish Medical Research Center, (2005)
  3. Martyny, J.W., Van Dyke, M., McCammon, C.S. Erb, N., Arbuckle, S.L., "Chemical Exposures Chemical Exposures Associated with Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratories Using the Anhydrous Ammonia Method Of Production." National Jewish Medical Research Center, (2005)
  4. (2000) Guidelines for contamination reduction and sampling at illegal drug manufacturing sites (revised June), Washington State Department of Health, Office of Toxic Substances.
  5. Willers-Russo, L.J. "Three Fatalities Involving Phosphine Gas, Produced As a Result of Methamphetamine Manufacturing." (1999) J Forensic Sci, 44 pp. 647-652.
  6. Burgess, J.L., Barnhart, S., Checkoway, H. "Investigating Clandestine Drug Laboratories: Adverse Medical Effects in Law Enforcement Personnel." (1996) Am J Ind Med, 30 pp. 488-494.
  7. Burgess, J.L., "Phosphine Exposure From a Methamphetamine Lab Investigation." (2001) J Toxicol Clin Toxicol, 39 pp. 165-168.
  8. Burgess, J.L., Kovalchick, D.F., Siegel, E.M., Hysong, T.A., McCurdy, S.A. "Medical surveillance of clandestine drug laboratory investigators." (2002) J. Occup. Environ. Med., 44 (2) pp. 184-189.
  9. CDPHE. 2005. Questions and Answers Regarding the Meth Lab Cleanup Regulations. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
  10. AIHA. 2005. Summary of Legislative Activity, Methamphetamine Issues. American Industrial Hygiene Association, Fairfax, VA.
  11. CDPHE. 2005. Support for Selection of a Cleanup Level for Methamphetamine at Clandestine Drug Laboratories. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
  12. The Methamphetamine Problem: A Health & Safety Overview for Fire Fighters. International Association of Fire Fighters, Division of Occupational Health, Safety and Medicine.
  13. International Chemical Safety Cards,

  14. Cleanup Q&A: Tweekers, Booby Traps Are Big Hazards
    Theresa Borst is president of BioClean, Inc., which is based in the Seattle, Wash. area. One of the company's primary services is methamphetamine lab cleanup.

    Q: How long has BioClean been in the business of methamphetamine lab cleanup?

    A: We opened our doors in 1999, initially cleaning up trauma scenes, and then migrated to meth labs. We also clean asbestos, sewage, and squalor conditions. We do 12 to 20 meth labs per year at $6,000-$30,000 each, depending on size and complexity.

    Q: Is your meth lab cleanup activity on the upswing?

    A: Actually, business has been decreasing since much methamphetamine is now being made in Mexico and brought in to Washington State in crystal form. So the number of local labs has dropped off.

    Q: What are the most significant hazards you face?

    A: Anhydrous ammonia tanks and booby traps. Altered propane tanks and cylinders are often left on site, and we have the Washington State Department of Ecology to retrieve them since they can explode if slightly jostled. Otherwise, it's the "tweekers" showing up at the site to try to retrieve their property while we're throwing it away.

    Q: Tweekers?

    A: Tweekers are the cooks and users. They got the nickname because they often twitch and can't stand still. Dealing with tweekers is the scariest part of the job. You never know what they're going to do.

    Q: What sorts of respiratory protection do you provided for your staff?

    A: We use full-face respirators with double-stacked P100 cartridges and accompanied by a PID. Once no VOCs are detected by the PID, we drop to a half-face respirators and sometimes use an N95. Fit testing is done annually using TSI Portacount® Universal Fit Testing equipment. Training is also done annually.

    Q: Describe the typical way you tackle a meth lab cleanup project.

    A: After being contacted and employed by the property owner, and after approval by health officials, BioClean makes a preliminary property and sampling assessment. We take samples and turn those over to an analytical lab for testing of methamphetamine contamination. Once the results have been received, a work plan is established and sent to the health department for review and approval. Once accepted, we start the decontamination process and follow with post sampling. A "Fit for Use" certificate is then issued, and the property released to the owner.

    Q: Are you certified to do this work?

    A: Meth lab cleanup and asbestos abatement require state certification that entails schooling. BioClean is fully licensed, bonded, and insured. In addition, in the state of Washington, to remove real property (e.g., carpet and pad) you have to be a licensed contractor.

    Q: What kind of training do you provide for your personnel?

    A: Most of our training is done on the job or in house. Above and beyond that, all of our employees get physicals and a baseline blood workup.

This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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