Clandestine Drug Labs
Clandestine drug labs or CDLs have been identified as increasingly hazardous entities not only to the general public but also to the response community. It is important to note that all indicators are pointing towards a growing number of CDLs and hence awareness of this ballooning problem is vital. In this text, I discuss CDLs and the various chemical, physical as well as other hazards the fire service encounters at a CDL.
Types of clandestine drug labs
According to Krebs (2003), there are two main types of CDLs, that is, the super lab and the smaller lab which in some instances is widely known asmom and pop. The super lab when compared to a smaller lab is usually well organized and the methamphetamine such a lab could contain could be much more than 10 pounds for each cycle of production. Mexico and California are two locations popular for the super labs. When it comes the smaller labs, the amount of methamphetamine produced is small compared to the super lab and they could be anything between 1 to 4 ounces for each cycle of production. The drugs in a smaller lab are largely not for huge commercial operations and they mostly serve to satisfy the needs of those involved in the production as well as their close associates and in some instances, some may be sold for purposes of funding the acquisition of chemicals as well as other equipments utilized for production.
It is important to note that the types of the CDL largely determines the hazardous materials that may be encountered and with that in mind, the two lab types bring about a number of challenges to fire service. It may also be noted that as compared to super labs, small labs actually account for more incidences of fires largely because the cooks (those involved in the production process) are less experienced and they lack more advanced equipments which are readily available in the super labs. His hence effectively means they have to utilize primitive equipment which are in most instances the cause for fires. It therefore follows that to reduce instances of fires; the small labs are of more concern than super labs though both are risk areas.
Physical, chemical and other Hazards encountered by the fire service at a CDL
Drugs produced at CDLs are made by mixing a wide range of chemicals which can end up being quite dangerous. According to Sullivan (2001), to produce methamphetamine, cooks require close to 34 types of chemicals. However, the most common of these include but are not in any way limited to anhydrous ammonia, hydrochloric acid, iodine, red phosphorous as well as ephedrine. It therefore follows that some of the chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine are potentially hazardous and this is what essentially makes firefighting in this case complex. According to Sullivan (2001), the fire service encounters location or physical difficulties when it comes to quelling fires in a CLD. This is essentially because while CDLs can be located anywhere i.e. farm houses, town houses, office buildings etc, their actual location may be disguised by improvising additional space which may be difficult to access.
For instance, a CLD may be located in dug up underground room whose accessibility is essentially difficult. Further, according to Krebs (2003), because CDLs are essentially designed or tailored to operate in utmost secrecy hence their name, hazard making systems are essentially absent i.e. Hazardous Materials identification standard system. Indeed, International Association of Fire Chiefs (2008) notes that in most instances, fire service does not know it is indeed fighting fire in a CLD. Hence when it comes to such an operation, it pays to know what to be on the lookout for.
Because of the large number of potentially hazardous chemicals used, the fire service must at all times take necessary precautions for chemical explosions after a fire breakout. Robertson (1989) notes that most of the chemicals found in CDLs include but are not in any way limited to general purpose chemicals i.e. acids, solvents as well as alkalis; reagents i.e. polymerize precursor alteration chemicals; and chemical building blocks which are known as precursors. It is also important to have a mention of some of the most common equipments in a CLD which may include household or lab equipments, lithium, brake cleaner, hydrochloric acid, kerosene, lantern fuel, ether, oven backeware etc.
most of the chemicals used in a typical CLD have a pH of not more than 2 and in most cases, such chemicals are liquids. This includes acids which are essentially strong including HCL. There are also chemicals whose pH does not exceed 12.5 and again this are made up of causants like ammonia (anhydrous). When mixed together, bases and acids bring about a violent reaction and other products like ammonia have a vapor that is highly toxic and corrosive. Further, when lithium is exposed to the air, it may react violently and cause an explosion.
One of the more commonly method of production as far as large scale meth production is concerned is the Red phosphorous/iodine approach. This method is one of the lading fire causants in CDLs. Here, a mixture of hydrochloric acid and re phosphorus is heated with ephedrine and in most cases; cooks often utilize white phosphorous in the process. It is important to note that when this substance is exposed to air, it ignites immediately and this is what informs most fires in small labs. Hence the fire service must be on the lookout for traces of white phosphorous when responding to such fires. Further, I can be noted that another hazardous and very toxic byproduct of the production process is hydrochloric acid. In most cases, cooks make the acid from commonly found and easy to acquire products such as water, iodine and red phosphorous. In instances where this mixture is overheated, there is the emission of phosphine gas which can be extremely toxic and can indeed be flammable.
Hence with that said, the fire service should be aware of both phosphine gas (as a result of overheating water, iodine and red phosphorous to make hydrochloric acid) and white phosphorous when responding to fires. Because most CDLs harbor water, iodine and red phosphorous, any fire brought about by other occurrences could end up facilitation the overheating of these chemicals and hence the emission of the highly toxic phosphine gas. This is a fact the fire service should be aware of so as o take necessary measures.
Another very dangerous chemical found within CDLs and which can be disastrous when inhaled is the anhydrous ammonia which is known to bring about severe skin burns and it is hence advisable to have a gas mask on plus protective clothing.
Precautions: protective equipment and other considerations
According to International Association of Fire Chiefs (2008), overlooking any clue in regard to a situation involving a CLD can potentially be disastrous. For instance, apart from the chemical reactants, there are other physical barriers erected by cooks and operators of CDLs to ensure that once an unfortunate event occurs i.e. a fire, they have adequate time to leave the scene and do not leave any trace. One of the more commonly utilized measures is the drilling of holes on the floor. These holes which may be deep and located at various entry points can be potentially dangerous to responders. Secondly, there is the incorporation of boars with nails on the floor which makes it hard to access some other areas. Hence with that in mind, the fire service must and should take all the necessary precautions are taken when responding to a fire. This could be by using vision aids in places that are dark.
It is recommended that structural firefighting personal protective equipment be worn properly and SCBA be utilized. This is essentially because one of the main avenues of exposure to gases as well as other chemicals when in a CLD is through ingestion as well as inhalation.
In conclusion, it is important to note that a fire involving a CLD has a higher rate of heat release different from other typical scenarios. It is hence important to note that in instances where the fire has a significant deviation from the expectations of the command, there should be an immediate shift to the defensive operation.
International Association of Fire Chiefs (2008). Fundamentals of Fire Fighter Skills. Jones & Bartlett Learning
Robertson, P. (1989). Fire in the clandestine drug lab. National Fire Academy
International Association of Fire Chiefs (2008). Fire Officer: Principles and Practice. Jones & Bartlett Learning
Krebs, D.R. (2003). When violence erupts: a survival guide for emergency responders. Jones & Bartlett Learning
Sullivan, J.B. (2001). Clinical environmental health and toxic exposures. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
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