Homemade methamphetamine labs can poison or burn the people using them or being around them. But they can also wreak havoc with the well-being of the firefighters, police and ambulance crews who respond when the labs explode or when law enforcement authorities raid the homes that harbor them.
"The primary purpose of a meth lab is to manufacture illegal controlled substance, and they pose a variety of hazards to the environment and people," says American Fire Co. No. 1 Assistant Chief Joseph Greco of Lansford. "The possibility for fires and explosions is extremely high, since the persons making the drug are often untrained and reckless when making 'crank' or methamphetamine. This may lead to explosions and fires that can kill the people involved and endanger the community."
Because the number of clandestine meth labs are rising, police, fire and ambulance crews must know how to react.
"Firefighters/first responders complete annual hazardous materials training, including identification, response and decontamination techniques for all chemicals, not just methamphetamine," Greco says. "Further, in recent years, more specific training has been offered which focuses on the recognition and response to clandestine drug labs. These courses are offered through the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy, Pennsylvania State Police and local training agencies."
State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann says firefighters typically don't receive training specifically aimed at meth labs. However, he says, Pennsylvania State Police do offer specific training.
Mann says that firefighters are trained in handling hazardous materials, and that provides a good defense against meth lab chemicals.
"Firefighters often don't know they've been involved with (meth lab chemicals) until after the fact," he says.
They are called to a fire scene, and later discover it was caused by a meth lab explosion. The current preferred method of making meth, called the "one pot" method, is particularly liable to explosion, Mann says.
"If they wear their protective gear and breathing apparatus, their hazmat training will suit them well," he says.
Also, Fort Indiantown Gap's Northeast Counterdrug Training Center has offered a course for first responders on detecting meth labs.
Training is crucial for the health and safety of police, fire, and ambulance personnel, and neighbors of the meth lab sites.
"First responders may also be injured or killed by fires due to explosions of meth labs," Greco says. "Also, people who live close to these labs also encounter the risk of being exposed to hazardous chemicals. Meth labs contain a variety of solvents, precursors and hazardous agents, which are often in unmarked containers. The chemicals found at these sites are very potent and can enter the central nervous system (CNS). Once the chemicals have entered the CNS, they may cause neural damage and affect the liver and kidneys."
The environment, including air and water quality, is also at risk for damage from meth labs. Cleanup done on the taxpayers' dime is expensive.
Greco says that, "according to training, five or six pounds of toxic waste are produced for each pound of meth that is manufactured. Leftover chemicals and by-products are often poured down drains in plumbing, storm drains, or even directly onto the ground. These toxic substances can remain in the soil and groundwater for years, therefore, the price associated with cleaning up a lab site can be costly. Some places have to be condemned due to the hazardous materials involved, leaving the property inhabitable.
"These clandestine labs are considered hazardous waste sites and should only be entered by trained and properly equipped professionals," he says.