Every year, the United States manufactures large quantities of prohibited drugs inside clandestine drug laboratories (CDLs). However, wastes that come out of such laboratories are likely to be dumped or disposed ineffectively, thus, leading to health hazards. Due to the chemicals utilized to manufacture the drugs, as well as the wastes accumulated during the manufacturing process, CDLs present serious safety and health risks, both to the law enforcement and the public. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has strived to offer directives on how to clean up the CDLs. Investigating CDLs is a combined endeavor that involves numerous government departments.
Clandestine drug laboratories are usually used to manufacture illegal drugs that include methamphetamine, PCP, and GHB. CDLs are established in individuals’ homes, backyards, trunk homes, vehicles, private apartments, and even in hotel rooms. The U.S. clandestine drug laboratories have exposed the law enforcement, as well as the emergency medical service (EMS) staff to chemical substances and booby traps. The operators of such laboratories may have little or no knowledge concerning the chemical substances that they use in their hidden laboratories. Such operators may erratically throw away hazardous substances, such as toxic chemicals, phytotoxins, and carcinogens, at their backyards, or expose them in the soil, leading to severe health risks to the surrounding community (Al-Obaidi & Fletcher, 2014).
If an individual has inadvertently stumbled onto a CDL, he/she should withdraw immediately and inform the authority or the EMS. If armed suspects are anticipated to be behind the establishment of CDLs, EMS staff should collaborate with the law enforcement in securing the area. Law enforcement should wear fire-resistant clothing to prevent them from catching fire in case of a bomb scare.
Rules of Entering a CDL
A CDLs is a hazardous material scene, as well as a crime scene, hence, it requires a team of trained investigators. Trained personnel should assess the lab for any toxic or explosive gases before anyone is permitted to enter. After the assessment, every person who is allowed to enter a CDL is necessitated to wear personal protective equipment (or PPE), based on the strength of the toxic gases inside the CDL. Experts entering the CDLs should be alert for any clue for booby traps. There could be wired firearms, cyanide gas generators, or other forms of explosives, thus, they should avoid switching on electric switches or open doors that lead to the electric appliances. Eating, drinking, or smoking in the CDL should be discouraged (“Guidelines for Law Enforcement” 2005).
The particular chemical hazards found in the CDLs may vary from one CDL to another, depending on the types of drugs that each CDL deals with. Most of the chemicals utilized in the CDLs are usually flammable, corrosive, carcinogenic, or explosive. Investigators are likely to find cyanide, red phosphorous, or mercury chloride in the CDLs. Other chemicals that could be found in the CDLs include hydrogen gas, metallic sodium, sulfuric acid, chloroform, and methanol. Responders can successfully manage CDLs if they follow all procedures for investigating drug laboratories (Fredrickson & Siljander, 2004).
Law enforcement is concerned about the secret manufacturing of illegal drugs in CDLs, and have been following various leads to confiscate the drug. However, the fear remains on the effects of the drugs that have been destroyed through confiscation. Without appropriate and professional methods of decontamination, the worrying threat of exposure to dangerous substances is real. Law enforcement has to collaborate with the CDL operators to ensure that everyone is safe before entering the CDL.
Identifying Types of CDLs
Methamphetamine is one of the popular drugs that are manufactured in the CDLs, which is largely used by drug addicts as a stimulant. Methamphetamine is a form of stimulant that doctors utilize occasionally to treat attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder (Brzeczko, Leech & Stark, 2013). The presence of methamphetamine could be confirmed by having flammable solvents acetone or toluene. The presence of iodine and hydriodic acid can be confirmed by purple stains on the site.
In thionyl chloride laboratory, one is likely to find flammable solvents such as chloroform, methanol, or ethanol. Other substances include palladium black, hydrogen gas, and thionyl chloride. Another common drug in CDLs is methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA). Public health officials can identify MDA through the presence of methanol, benzene, hydrogen peroxide, ammonium formate, and sulfuric acid within the CDL. In Gamma Hydroxybutarate (GHB) lab, responders are likely to find sodium hydroxide and gamma butyrolactone.
Role of Fire and EMS
While investigating on the CDLs, fire or explosion might occur, and such fires could facilitate the spread of toxic smoke to the surrounding, causing chemical hazards. The role of the fire department is to evacuate people who reside near the CDLs to avoid exposing them to more risks during the extinguishing of fire. EMS is vital during the investigation of CDLs because they offer emergency response to people who are exposed to toxic fumes or heat. They eliminate toxic gases from the CDLs, in addition to transporting victims to the medical facilities. CDL operators are involved in detecting signs of exposure to toxic substances among the victims.
Many countries are grappling with the increase in clandestine drug laboratories, which have proved to be hazardous to the public health, as well as the law enforcement, who respond to the hazards. Handling CDLs require a multi-disciplinary effort that involves police officers, EMS personnel, and environmental quality regulators. Chemical hazards pose greater risk to the responders, thus, they should be adequately trained in handling toxic substances. They should be enlightened on how to detect explosions, toxic gases, odors, and boob-traps, in addition to how to secure the site.
Al-Obaidi, T.A., & Fletcher, S. M. (2014). Management of clandestine drug laboratories: need for evidence-based environmental health policies. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 19(1), 1-11. doi: 10.1007/s12199-013-0360-8
Brzeczko, A. W., Leech, R., & Stark, J. G. (2013). The advent of a new pseudoephedrine product to combat methamphetamine abuse. American Journal Of Drug & Alcohol Abuse, 39(5), 284-290. doi:10.3109/00952990.2013.821476
Fredrickson, D. D., & Siljander, R. P. (2004). Street drug investigation: A practical guide for plainclothes and uniformed personnel. Springfield, Ill: Charles C Thomas.
Guidelines for Law Enforcement for the Cleanup of Clandestine Drug Laboratories (2005). Drug Enforcement Administration, Retrieved on 22 Nov. 2016 from