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How to Investigate a Meth Lab

September 01, 2006  |  by David Street

Step Two

Converting ephedrine (or pseudoephedrine) into methamphetamine is the second phase of the manufacturing process. This is accomplished by heating the ephedrine with a strong acid and red phosphorus. As the acid heats up, it releases acidic vapors. Breathing these fumes is very toxic to the lungs. There’s also the danger of exposing your skin and eyes to these acids, which can cause severe chemical burns.

Filtering out red phosphorous is a risky process; overheating can produce poisonous phosphine gas.

I recall once walking through a drug lab set up in a kitchen. Fortunately, I was wearing a chemical spill suit, chemical resistant boots, gloves, and a respirator. I saw a puddle on the floor that looked like water, but just to be sure, I threw down a pH strip and discovered it was a pool of acid.

Just an hour earlier, children had been evacuated from this house, all of them barefoot. And what of the officers who performed the evacuation? They didn’t have any protective clothing on.

I remember how embarrassed these officers were when we stripped and scrubbed them down, putting their shoes and clothing into plastic bags. Embarrassing but necessary, since they could have contaminated their patrol units, the station, and their families when they went home that night.

Another danger during this phase occurs when the cooker overheats the red phosphorus and produces a poisonous gas called “phosphine.” This deadly gas has killed many drug cookers through the years. Not only is phosphine poisonous, but it’s also explosive when concentrated in a heated beaker. I’ve processed a number of labs where beakers have exploded, splattering their contents on the ceiling and walls.

Imagine entering a room where this highly acidic reaction mixture is dripping down, giving off acidic fumes and phosphine gas. Naturally, when my team responded to the scene we wore chemical spill suits, air tanks, and had a decontamination station already set up. But if you’re the initial responder with just a ballistic vest, you can’t safely enter this environment. The only alternative is to stay outside, get upwind, and call the occupants out.

I was working one lab fire where the heat turned red phosphorus from red to white. When exposed to air, white phosphorus ignites, giving off an extremely acidic gas. It cannot be extinguished with water and a huge cloud of these fumes had spread downwind into the surrounding neighborhood.

The cleanup crew was hours away and patrol worked feverishly to evacuate the residents as we temporarily smothered the flames with dry sand. When the cleanup crew did arrive, they tried to contain the white phosphorus in plastic buckets. But it reignited and melted the buckets. They covered it with sand again and it was hours before they could get the right equipment for the job. Only a highly trained hazmat crew can deal with chemicals like these.

Over the years, I’ve worked many labs that were hard to control. In one where the hazmat crew was trying to identify an acid in a 55-gallon drum, they siphoned a sample into a glass jar and it melted the glass. In another, we found a one-gallon jug of hydrochloric acid sitting on top of a large container of potassium cyanide. These are common chemicals for making PCP, but if they had been mixed, the resulting fumes could have exposed the surrounding neighborhood with the same gas used to execute convicts in the California death chamber.

Step Three

The third phase of methamphetamine manufacturing is called extraction. This involves mixing strong acids with strong bases and organic solvents. Anytime an acid is mixed with a base, there’s going to be a hot and violent reaction. Add in an organic solvent such as Coleman fuel, naphtha, lighter fluid, or other highly flammable liquid multiplies the chance of fire or explosion.

As seen in the prior steps, breathing these fumes or getting these liquids on your skin can lead to severe chemical burns. Imagine living the rest of your life relying on an oxygen tank to breathe. Don’t take the chance with your lungs. Even when being cautious, I’ve found myself in some scary situations at meth cooking sites.

Cookers risk their lives to make methamphetamine, shown above.

On one occasion, I was wearing a chemical spill suit and SCBA as I carried five-gallon buckets of bi-phase liquid out of a shed. I tripped and spilled about two gallons of solvent out of the entrance onto some live wires leading into the shed. As they shorted out, a small fireball erupted and the surrounding weeds started to burn. Fortunately, the chemicals inside didn’t catch fire and I leaped to safety as my partner doused the flames. Spill suits are great for protecting you from chemicals, but they will melt right onto your skin if exposed to extreme heat.

Step Four

The final phase of home meth production is converting methamphetamine into a solid and filtering it out. Again, flammable solvents, strong acids, and acidic fumes are used in this process and the hazards are the same as in the third phase.

Considering all the dangerous chemicals used, I’m always amazed that drug users willingly snort this stuff up their noses, inject it into their bloodstream, or suck the smoke into their lungs.

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Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Amanda @ 9/23/2012 4:14 PM

i reported a possible meth lab 2 doors down, drug investigators said their watching his house. (this was 2 months ago) how long does it usually take to bust these houses?. im sick of it, to the point im looking at apartments to move.

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