What to Do if You Find a "Meth" Lab at Your Site
Methamphetamine (meth) use has crept up the social ladder and now can be found at all social strata. The meth problem is pervasive. Meth-making operations have been uncovered in all 50 states. And according to a nationwide survey of 500 law-enforcement agencies in 45 states by the National Association of Counties (NACO), methamphetamine is the No. 1 drug cops battle today--58 percent said meth is their biggest drug problem, compared with only 19 percent for cocaine, 17 percent for pot, and 3 percent for heroin. The same survey found that 70 percent of agencies said robberies or burglaries have increased because of meth, as have domestic violence, assaults, and identity theft; and 40 percent of child-welfare officials reported an increase in out-of-home placements last year due to meth.
Catching a meth problem sooner rather than later is important for site owners and managers. The more meth that’s manufactured in a unit, the more toxic residue is left behind and the more physical damage is done to the property. Also, an illicit drug operation on the premises can endanger other residents, put your building at risk of fire, compromise your ability to provide safe housing, and result in bad publicity for you.
“Meth labs are extremely toxic and can cause severe damage to a community’s environment and harm to its residents,” says Steven Robertson, a DEA special agent with clandestine drug lab training. The process of making meth, which requires heating red phosphorus, can cause explosions and fires. If the red phosphorus reaction is allowed to overheat, phosphine gas is produced. And when the gas is produced in large quantities, it explodes. Also, dangerous residue and fumes from cooking meth remain long after the process is finished.
The dangers of meth labs can affect even those with specialized training. The gases produced in meth labs are denser than regular air, and they can get trapped behind drapes or beneath objects. “In one case, the enforcement officer looked under a bed for evidence. He ended up breathing in a pocket of toxic fumes and he lost one-quarter of his lung capacity,” Robertson recalls.
The meth problem has spread because of more sophisticated production methods and easier access to supplies. “Advances in meth production have allowed it to move from backwoods areas to urban centers,” Robertson observes. “Meth cooking is not as smelly as it was before, and as a result, small-scale meth production has been moving into more populated areas.”
You probably already perform a thorough background check when prospective residents apply for a unit at your site. Owners are required to permanently bar admission if any household member has ever been convicted of drug-related criminal activity for the manufacture or production of methamphetamine on the premises of federally assisted housing [24 CFR 882.518(a)]. But what should you do if a drug-abusing member who has never been convicted decides to establish a clandestine methamphetamine lab at your site? The following are some tips to help you manage the problems of clandestine meth labs at your site.
How to Uncover Meth Labs in Your Building
Follow these tips to prevent or minimize problems from clandestine meth labs at your site. Here are some signs that should put you on alert that there may be illicit drug production activity at your site.
Be wary of erratic behavior. “Meth producers generally cook meth at night,” says Robertson. They are usually up all night because the stimulants in meth cause an increase in energy and alertness. Meth also causes a decrease in appetite and an intense euphoric “rush,” particularly in the short term.
In the long term, a person using meth may exhibit irritability, fatigue, anxiety, confusion, aggressive feelings, violent rages, and depression. A user may experience paranoia, auditory hallucinations, and delusions. The paranoia may lead to homicidal or suicidal thoughts.
Look for physical indicators of meth use. There are physical warning signs that a resident might be abusing meth. For example, the user often experiences the sensation that bugs are crawling on his skin. As a result, he will pick or scratch his skin. Look for open sores on the suspect’s skin, as a result of scratching. Another physical indicator that a resident may be abusing meth is rotting and missing teeth, known as “meth mouth.”
Know the ingredients. “Knowing what is involved in making meth and noticing the excessive quantities of certain ingredients in the trash are usually the most obvious indicators that there is a meth lab in an apartment building,” notes Robertson. Look for multiple bottles or packages of pseudoephedrine, a decongestant, and caustic acids, such as drain cleaner.
A meth lab will produce an abnormal amount of waste using these ingredients. For example, a resident has no legitimate reason to throw out multiple bottles of bleach or numerous cold medicine packages every week.
Other ingredients include battery acid, acetone, rock salt, lye, antifreeze, kitty litter, lithium batteries, and toluene, a common solvent that can dissolve paint and glues.
What to Do if You Suspect a Meth Lab
Once your suspicions are raised, be careful and follow the rules below. Meth users and the by-products of meth production are very dangerous.
Don’t approach suspects. Meth users might be dangerous and can act irrationally.
Don’t enter the lab area. Don’t try to clean up the area. Evidence should remain undisturbed for investigation by law enforcement. If you are in the lab, find an excuse to leave immediately. Act in a casual manner, so that you don’t frighten or antagonize the suspect, and leave the premises immediately.
Never try to identify unknown substances by smelling or touching them. Coming into contact with even a small amount of the chemicals or fumes can cause irreparable damage.
Promptly notify local law enforcement. They’ll be able to validate your suspicions. And if the situation calls for it, they’ll usually send a hazardous material (HAZMAT) team to your site to remove most of the hazardous chemicals and waste.
The cleanup following the discovery of a meth lab can be complex and expensive. Unfortunately, most insurance companies that cover sites exclude “contamination” and “felony activities” from their policies.
Law enforcement authorities generally oversee the first phase of a cleanup because the unit is considered a crime scene. This phase involves removing laboratory equipment, chemicals, and obviously contaminated furnishings.
After a unit is no longer part of a criminal investigation, the second phase begins, involving the cleanup of harder-to-identify residue. At this point, the responsibility passes to the site owner. Ask your county officials for a list of contract cleaners that are EPA-certified in hazardous waste disposal to make the unit safe for inhabitants and be sure to check state law for any additional requirements. Some states’ laws require owners to get a preliminary site assessment from a state agency to determine the best way to approach the cleanup. Some states, such as Colorado and Washington, have guidelines spelling out how the cleanup of a meth lab must be done, including how to air out the unit and decontaminate ventilation systems. And some states require owners to get a state-issued certificate saying the unit has been decontaminated before re-renting it.
If your state has laws governing meth lab cleanup, make sure any contract you sign with a meth lab cleanup company has language stating that the company will perform the cleanup in accordance with applicable state laws or guidelines.
Steven Robertson: Special Agent, United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Alexandria, VA; www.dea.gov.