Clandestine Drug Labs and the Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

Fortunately, no NC responders have been killed, but around the country every year several first responders are injured or die from job-related exposures to these labs" (efilmgroup, 2009).

The fire department seems to be at the forefront of the risk in many cases, because a significant number of the clan labs are called in as explosions or fires. In other words, often the fire service doesn't know exactly what they are getting into. Calls may report medical aid is needed, or that someone is injured, a structure fire, trash fire, or investigation is required of some suspicious "smoke," a strange odor, or someone dumping illegally, and on. And the actual mix of whatever it really is could be fatally toxic to someone -- like the fire service or police -- who first encounters it. These chemicals are mixes of: acetone, methanol, benzene, ether, hydriodic acid, muriatic acid, sodium hydroxide, and many others -- all available over the counter in various forms of household products.

The Colorado Springs, Colorado police department, in order to know more about the exposure that firefighters might encounter in clan labs, accomplished a "real-life" study of controlled environment drug labs that they set up to produce meth. The police department set them up in the police lab, in a deserted house, and a motel. In addition, they looked at and studied in detail sixteen real clan labs (IAFF, 2009).

Bottom line results regarding risk to firefighters and other first responders: (IAFF, 2009)

Clan labs can produce levels of phosphine, hydrogen chloride, iodine and meth that are well above threshold limits and anyone encountering them may have multiple exposures.

The danger level of exposure is dependent on the level of activity at the lab and the type of production. The critical point is that firefighters won't know the actual threat level until after they arrive and witness it.

Complete skin protection, chemical resistant clothing, boots, gloves and self-contained breathing apparatus are the recommended protection upon arrival.

The main point of this study is that despite controlled conditions under a laboratory hood with adequate ventilation, the levels of hydrogen chloride, iodine, and methamphetamine were much higher than threshold limit values and state standards (IAFF, 2009).

An unexpected, but not surprising threat to firefighters and other first responders to clan labs is all sorts of weapons and booby-traps. Weapons are common at illegal labs and explosives have even been found connected to trip wires which are usually made of almost invisible fishing line. Dangerous guard dogs that have been trained to kill or even venomous snakes have been found "guarding" clan labs. Hazards such as holes in the floor that have been concealed, spring devices with exposed nails or sharp objects, and buckets of gun powder filled with nails set to ignite and explode after trip wires are activated, have all been found at clan-labs (Peterson, n.d.).

Hazardous material procedures and rules must be followed in response to any encounter with a clan lab, especially an active one. These hazmat guidelines demand that hazard zones be established, and they also dictate the positioning of emergency response vehicles and personnel to be upwind of the clan lab, as well as the immediate evacuation of all other people from the area. Police personnel need to be on-site for assistance, crowd and traffic control.

It is clear that proper preparation and planning are the keys to fire service safety and response to any clan lab drug operation.


Clandestine drug laboratories. (1997, June). Retrieved December 5, 2009, from efilmgroup. (2009). Meth labs - a to z hazard for emergency responders. Retrieved December 6, 2009, from

IAFF. (2009). The methamphetamine problem: A health and safety overview for firefighters. Retrieved December 6, 2009, from International association of firefighters (IAFF):

IDEM. (n.d.). Indiana department of environmental management (IDEM):Cleanup illegal drug labs. Retrieved December 5, 2009, from (Indiana):

Peterson, D. (n.d.). Hazardous materials - clandestine drug labs. Retrieved December 6, 2009, from State of Minnesota (from / the/meth/lab/dpeterson.pdf

Scott, M., & Dedel, K. (2006). The problem of clandestine methamphetamine labs. Retrieved December 5, 2009, from Center for problem-oriented policing:

Watson, P. (2006). Hazards of clandestine drug labs. Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, 68+.

Houston Fire Dept

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