The methamphetamine epidemic is alive and well in the U.S. On Saturday in Chesterfield, VA, police found yet another meth lab in a self-storage unit, reminding the industry that some lab operators are still using self-storage to hide their chemicals and equipment.
Self-storage units provide lab operators with a unique opportunity to store immensely dangerous chemicals and waste outside of their homes. Some lab operators will even “cook” in the units, which is absurdly treacherous when one considers the lack of proper ventilation and temperature controls in most storage units. In addition, every pound of methamphetamine produced leaves behind five pounds of toxic waste.
Aside from the hazardous waste and noxious fumes, meth production can also cause fires and explosions. The meth-cooking process requires an immense amount of toxic chemicals. By itself, red phosphorus, which is found in bombs, road flares and matches, is particularly hazardous. When it burns during the meth-cooking process, it releases a gas that can cause chemical pneumonia, respiratory damage, burns or death. Friction alone can ignite minute red phosphorus deposits, and mere traces of the substance can cause fires and explosions up to four decades after the initial meth production. Put simply, a meth lab can destroy your facility— even years later.
As facility owners and operators, it’s important to be on the lookout for methamphetamine production and storage. If you are unfortunate enough to have meth production at your facility, the average lab clean-up cost is approximately $4,500 per storage unit, according to the DEA. That said, the clean-up costs can ultimately run as high as tens of thousands of dollars— not to mention the potentially devastating ancillary costs, including human lives, property damage, a decline in property value, and massive damage to the environment.
Potential Warning Signs
- Tenants are paranoid or agitated, have unusual sweating, lack personal hygiene, or dress inappropriately for the current climate
- Their vehicles are older pickup trucks, vans and moving vans
- Tend to park their vehicle far away from their unit
- Request 24-hour access to their unit
- Pay in cash, perhaps multiple months in advance
- Always keep their items covered up in their vehicle when they are entering and exiting the facility
- Request a unit in an isolated part of the facility
- Spend hours inside their units (it takes 6-8 hours to finish production)
- Meth lab operators may rent two units at a time, using one for waste-storage and the other for the actual cooking.
- Some particularly crafty cooks request back-to-back units, and then cut a hole in the dividing wall as an emergency escape route.
STRANGE ODORS: Generally, meth labs give off sweet or bitter aromas, similar to ammonia, ether, solvents, or vinegar. According to the Illinois Attorney General’s office, meth lab odors have been compared to cat urine and rotten eggs. It’s important to keep in mind that meth production does not yield odors at all times; a discernible smell will not be present until ingredients are combined or there is a spill.
DEAD VEGETATION: If you see dead patches of grass, stained soil, or burn pits on your facility, this could be the result of the disposal of toxic substances.
UNUSUAL AND EXCESSIVE TRASH: Looking through the onsite refuse container is a good way to confirm meth production. A large quantity of empty cold tablet packages is a dead giveaway. Also, be wary of matchbooks without their striker plates, stripped lithium batteries, and coffee filters with colored stains or powdery residue. Meth production requires cold storage containers in order to transport anhydrous ammonia, so be on the lookout for propane tanks, coolers, and thermos bottles. Look for kitty litter as well, as it’s commonly used to absorb the chemical waste.
Meth Production Items
- Ephedrine or Pseudoephedrine (cold medicine, such as Sudafed or Claritin)
- Anhydrous Ammonia (farm fertilizer)
- Sodium Hydroxide (lye)
- Lithium (batteries)
- Salt (table or rock)
- Sulfuric Acid (Drano)
- Ether (engine starter)
- Red Phosphorus (matches or road flares)
- Alcohol (isopropyl or rubbing)
- MSM (cutting agent)
- Acetone (paint thinner)
- Lighter fluid, Coleman fuel, freon, antifreeze
- Coffee filters with colored stains or powdery residue
- Plastic soda bottles, often with tubes protruding from holes
- Matchbook striker plates
- Plastic or rubber hoses
- Duct tape, clamps, aluminum foil
- Laboratory beakers, glassware
- Hotplates, blenders
- Kitty litter
- Rubber gloves, Respiratory masks
- Funnels, strainers
- Plastic storage containers, buckets, measuring cups
- Bed sheets, pillow cases
- Tell all potential tenants that you allow police to train drug-sniffing dogs at your facility.
- Make sure to regularly patrol the facility, checking for unusual and excessive waste, strange odors, unusual liquids, and any suspicious characters.
- Whenever possible, glance inside open units, looking for stains on the concrete or drywall.
- Check your traffic logs to ensure that your tenants aren’t staying in the unit at irregular times and/or for extended periods of time.
- Be sure to include language in the lease forbidding the storage of hazardous materials.
- If you suspect that there is a meth lab at your facility, do not double-lock the unit or confront the suspects. Call the authorities immediately.