by Nick Gromicko, CMI®
Methamphetamine (also known as "crystal meth" or "meth") is a highly addictive and illegal stimulant. A meth lab is an illegal drug-manufacturing site, often a house or apartment, containing equipment and potentially toxic chemicals required to produce meth.
Facts and Statistics About Meth Labs
- In 2003, more than 17,000 meth labs were seized by police in the United States. Seizures in recent years have been significantly fewer, but authorities estimate that tens of thousands of homes may be contaminated by toxic chemicals from meth labs.
- Far fewer meth labs per capita have been seized in Canada than in the United States.
- Meth labs can be found in any neighborhood, regardless of social, socio-economic, and ethnic composition.
- Carpeting, wallboard, ceiling tile and fabric may absorb spilled or vaporized chemicals. These chemicals may remain for many years after the meth lab has been disassembled, potentially poisoning future tenants. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to make contaminated homes habitable.
- It is estimated that 5 to 7 pounds of chemical waste is produced for each pound of meth manufactured.
- One tablespoon of methanol, an ingredient required in meth production, can cause permanent blindness if ingested. Death can result from the ingestion of less than half of a cup of the chemical. Other common chemicals used to produce meth include bleach, household drain cleaner, benzene, methylene chloride, trichloroethane, battery acid, lye, ammonia and muriatic acid. More chemicals can be formed during the “cooking” process.
- Chemicals required or created by the meth production process can cause health problems, such as cancer, brain and nervous system injury, injury to the liver and kidneys, birth defects, and reproductive disorders.
- Meth labs can be very small. They have been found in bathtubs and inside vehicles.
Why should inspectors care?
- for their own safety. InterNACHI inspectors should not handle items that they believe are contaminated with dangerous chemicals.
- for the safety of their clients. It is the inspector's responsibility to call out potentially dangerous conditions in homes.
A Case Report:
Jason and Rhonda Holt purchased a house in Tennessee to start their family. They were soon plagued by mysterious illnesses. Their three babies became pale and lethargic, requiring many trips to the emergency room where they were put on respirators and one received steroids. Rhonda developed headaches, and her husband suffered kidney ailments. They endured these illnesses for years until they discovered, five years after moving into their house, that it was the location of a former meth lab. The Holts would need to spend more than $30,000 to rid their home of the toxic chemicals that had saturated the home.
Visually Recognizing a Possible Meth Lab:
The following conditions are indications that a residence is or was once used as a meth lab:
- the presence of equipment used to cook meth, such as pressure cookers, jugs, blenders, aluminum foil, pH test strips, turkey basting wands, rubber gloves, thermometers, funnels, strainers and duct tape;
- unusual odors. The odors associated with meth labs often smell sweet or bitter, and some people have described it as burning popcorn. An ammonia smell, similar to that of pet urine, may also be present. Waste products may have been dumped down sinks, drains or toilets. These waste products can collect in drains, traps and septic tanks and can give off fumes;
- covered or blacked-out windows;
- chemical staining of walls and floors. Yellow or red stains are likely to be a result of phosphorous or iodine spillage;
- burnpits, stained soil, or dead vegetation indicating dumped chemicals from a meth lab;
- security measures, such as cameras or baby monitors outside of buildings. Unusual small holes in walls and doors may indicate runways for cables;
- trap doors in floors or walls;
- rust appearing on door hinges, cabinet knobs, light fixtures or keys. Corrosive gasses such as hydrochloric acid cause this rusting;
- unusual burn marks;
- missing or detached smoke detectors; and
- unusual venting or plumbing.
Some inspectors offer meth testing services for additional fees. Generally inspectors charge for each sample test and the more samples taken the better. Nick Gromicko, founder of the International Association of Certified Indoor Air Consultants, says "Once an inspector acquires one positive test, he/she should consider the home to be a former lab at that point, but numerous negative tests should be considered inconclusive."
Should inspectors report meth labs to the authorities?
Inspectors are not DEA agents, and it is technically not the inspector's legal responsibility to report suspicions to authorities. Furthermore, police generally do not care much about former meth labs, which are more of an environmental concern than a criminal issue. Obviously, it is highly unlikely that an inspector will be invited to perform an inspection in a house that has a working meth lab, but it is possible. If an inspector encounters an operational meth lab he/she should report it to police. If an inspector believes that a home, septic tank or yard may be contaminated, he/she should contact the local health department or department of natural resources for advice.
In summary, inspectors should try to notice signs of former meth labs, which can contaminate their surroundings with toxic chemicals.