Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Drug Labs Leave Lethal Legacy

Drug lab

Criminal gangs can rent a property briefly, cook up their lucrative brew, chuck the waste down the drain then take off – leaving others to cop harmful side-effects that can last for years.

By Julian Cribb

Mobile methamphetamine labs leave behind a deadly cocktail of contaminants in residential neighbourhoods – with property owners left to pay for the considerable clean-up costs.

For many young Australians, a dose of ice, speed or ecstasy is all part of a Friday night’s fun at the nightclub or singles bar. But for an increasing number of innocent people – including tiny babies – it could spell cancer, leukaemia, lung disease, birth defects, brain damage, skin diseases, headaches and blindness.

The lethal wider consequences of a “night on the town” are only now starting to emerge as police and environmental authorities grapple with the ever-growing problem of highly mobile recreational drug laboratories, where criminal gangs rent a property briefly, cook up their lucrative brew, chuck the waste down the drain then take off – leaving others to cop harmful side-effects that can last for years.

The damage to the health of those who subsequently live in the house, apartment or motel room where the drugs were made is only part of the problem. For property owners it may involve costs of $150,000 for clean-up or more – and even the possible demolition of their property, without compensation.

Scientists from the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) have been working with police, environment protection agencies and state authorities in an attempt to find better ways to clean up and make safe properties that have been used as illegal drug labs, and their impact on the wider local environment.

Clandestine manufacturers or “cooks” of methamphetamines typically wash toxic waste from the production of the drug down drains or dump it untreated into the environment, according to Profs Ravi Naidu and Megharaj Mallavarapu of CRC CARE. At the same time, the places where they make it can become impregnated with the volatile chemicals used to manufacture the drugs. This may endanger the health of subsequent residents, who may be completely unaware that their home has been used as a drug factory and that they are inhaling noxious substances every minute they live there.

“In some countries they have in the past torn down houses where drugs were made because they were so polluted it would be hazardous for anyone to live there afterwards,” Naidu says. “So this is also a serious issue for owners, who can find themselves facing legal action, clean-up costs, a huge drop in property values or even their building being razed to the ground as a result of an activity which they knew nothing about.”

The researchers say a drug lab is usually a temporary set-up, used for a brief period and abandoned without any attempt at safe, scientific clean-up. The operation is then moved to another temporary location, causing contaminated sites to multiply across the community in new locations constantly.

Typical meth lab equipment consists of commercially-bought items such as separatory funnels, bunsen burners, reaction vessels, plastic storage containers and large glass beakers – the type of gear you might find in a high school chemistry lab. These labs are capable of producing several kilograms of methamphetamines in a single cooking process. Because the gear is light and portable, it can be rapidly dismantled and moved to another location for the next brew-up – or simply trashed.

The volatile toxic chemicals used to make drugs do not disappear when drug-making ceases on site. They find their way into walls and furnishings, soil, air and water.

“We know that over five kilos of toxic waste are generated for every kilo of methamphetamine drug produced,” Naidu says. “Local residents and future inhabitants of the property can unknowingly be exposed to and endangered by this toxic waste through inhalation, skin absorption or by drinking contaminated water.

“Primary contaminants of concern from these drug labs include known carcinogens like benzenes, and other toxins such as methylene chloride, trichloroethane and toluene,” he adds.

“People need to understand that these places are in fact toxic chemical factories – but factories without any of the decontamination practices, regulation, oversight or health and safety standards that apply in regular, legitimate industry. Most people wouldn’t want an unregulated chemical plant on their doorstep – but now it’s happening all across Australia.

Exposure to meth residues may cause symptoms similar to those experienced by meth users. Exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) may cause symptoms such as nose and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, confusion and breathing difficulties. Benzene is a VOC known to cause cancer (Table 1).

Acids or bases cause burns to the skin and in mucous membranes, and can inflict severe eye damage. Exposure to metals and salts can cause a wide range of health effects including respiratory irritation, decreased mental function, anaemia, kidney damage and birth defects.

Those most exposed are the drug “cooks” themselves, and subsequent residents or neighbours of labs – but police, fire fighters, environmental inspectors, clean-up teams and other public servants may also be exposed to the noxious residues of the drug cook-up.

The CRC CARE researchers have investigated the potential for the drugs to leach into the ecosystem and found that the chemicals and their byproducts can persist in the environment for many years, posing a continuing hazard to water quality and wildlife.

“Where this occurs, it means that people living on the site or nearby may be exposed over a number of years. This can lead to a process known as bioaccumulation, whereby the chemicals build up over time in the human body, in water, livestock or food crops. We need to do more research into the risks, both human and ecological, that this poses,” Naidu says.

Naidu argues that, since the toxic cycle depends on demand created by recreational drug consumers, besides attempting to clean up after the drug cooks there needs to be much greater public education about the damaging “side-effects” of what many young people tend to regard as a private and relatively innocuous activity – recreational drug use.

“The issue is similar to video piracy, where young people are now being asked to consider the wider consequences of their personal actions on the film industry and on actors’ livelihoods,” Naidu says.

“However in the case of illegal drugs, the manufacturing process can cost someone else their health and even their life. I doubt that most young people are aware of these wider consequences of their consumer decisions – and I feel that Australia should consider a national education campaign to change this situation.

“Preventing clandestine drug manufacturers from dumping their wastes is a challenging task given the extreme secrecy under which these labs operate, and their high mobility. Effective legislation and tougher penalties for the ‘cooks’ may help to reduce the number of illicit labs in operation, but it would also help if young people who buy these drugs understood the harm their manufacture can cause to others and to the environment.

“They need to know that to pop a pill can also kill.”

Julian Cribb is a freelance science writer.