It is a damp night and the noxious fumes from a methamphetamine lab are snaking out through the surrounding neighborhood as the cook progresses. The neighbors downwind close their windows as their children complain of headaches, nausea, and sore throats from the acidic odors. The police are called and a patrol unit responds to check things out.
As the officer observes the dilapidated mobile home, he sees the toys and broken down cars scattered about the property. He can smell the raw chemical odors filling the air and called for backup. When the second unit arrives, the mobile home goes dark. All is quiet and it is now apparent the cookers inside are aware of their presence.
The million dollar question is what to do now. It’s likely the meth cookers are busy disassembling the lab and destroying evidence. Do you call for narcotics and wait or do you make contact and investigate? Being action-oriented people, most officers go to the door and investigate. And most of the time, things take their natural course with the officers discovering the lab, arresting the crooks, freezing the scene, and calling out the Narcs to process the lab.
But what if the crook doesn’t answer the door or you smell smoke as the lab ignites? What happens if the crook answers the door and then runs back inside, slamming it behind him? Are you obligated to chase him, knowing full well that there are hazardous chemicals inside and there’s a real possibility the trailer will explode or catch fire? Say you saw toys outside. Are you now obligated to check inside and evacuate the kids? The possibilities are endless, and I don’t have a pat answer for how to answer them. That’s your decision.
But what I do know after working narcotics for seven years and having processed more than 350 clandestine drug labs (mostly methamphetamine), is that meth labs are dangerous, and it’s patrol officers who find the bulk of them.
Unfortunately, patrol officers rarely have the training or equipment to even approach these hazardous crime scenes, so they’re the ones facing the greatest risks. The purpose of this article is to articulate these dangers and help reduce the risks for those involved.
Recipe for Destruction
Although other processes exist, the current prevailing method for making methamphetamine is by the red phosphorus / hydriodic acid / pseudoephedrine recipe. This four-step process requires strong acids, strong bases, flammable solvents, and, during some steps, very explosive and poisonous chemicals.
Although a common chemical, methanol is also often used as a solvent to process meth.
For obvious reasons, I won’t discuss the particulars of making methamphetamine. Instead, I’ve outlined the hazards to patrol officers associated with each step of the cooking process.
The first step in making meth is to obtain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, which is the precursor for making meth. Some cookers can get pharmaceutical-grade ephedrine through the black market. But most cannot, so they extract it from cold or allergy medication—a risky process.
Because meth cookers use cold medicine to extract pseudoephedrine, its sale is restricted in many states.
Cookers often use alcohol-based solvents to isolate ephedrine from the rest of the medication. In my experience, this is the step where most lab fires break out. The solvents used are extremely volatile chemicals, which makes them dangerous to begin with. To add to the risk, most meth cookers aren’t chemists, so they don’t know how to handle them safely.
I investigated one lab fire where a man was using his girlfriend’s home in a small trailer park to cook meth. He didn’t want the telltale odors to escape, so the cooker put damp towels across the door and window seams, sealing the odors inside.
As he boiled a pot of acetone on the stove, the fumes, having no outlet, rapidly reached an explosive concentration and the trailer exploded, burning it and two neighboring trailers to the ground.
During the investigation, I recall how the neighbors described the cooker as a young white male running down the street with his hair on fire. I found him hours later in an emergency room with severe burns and a very cranky attitude.
I investigated another lab fire where the cooker wasn’t even heating the denatured alcohol she was using in this first step. It was still just as dangerous. It was a hot day and as the denatured alcohol evaporated, its fumes filled the kitchen. When the refrigerator motor kicked on, it generated a small spark which ignited the fumes and caused an explosion.
Engulfed in flames, the cooker ran outside screaming as she abandoned her two small children in the burning structure. Fortunately, the children ran outside too. But a short time later, the woman died, leaving her children orphaned.
If you as the initial officer were to enter this type of explosive atmosphere, recognize that discharging your firearm could easily ignite these fumes. It would be best to evacuate the structure, freeze the scene, and call for local fire and or hazmat crews. The building should be vented and everyone should stay on the upwind side to avoid contamination from the fumes.