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Meth Labs: Fueling the Drug Epidemic

Meth labs, hidden in homes and remote areas, significantly contribute to the U.S. drug epidemic. They produce unregulated, toxic meth, heightening addiction and overdose rates, despite efforts to curb their proliferation.

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Meth labs are illegal laboratories people set up in their homes, sheds, hotel rooms, cars, and other places. In these labs, people use legally purchased over-the-counter ingredients to manufacture methamphetamine. 

The chemicals used to cook meth are toxic. They can cause serious health and environmental problems. 

The History of Meth Labs

In the United States, methamphetamine has historically come from Mexican drug organizations. There, methamphetamine is manufactured from locally sourced chemicals and then distributed throughout the United States. 

The type of meth available depends on what has successfully arrived from Mexico. Methamphetamine continues to arrive illegally from Mexico, while meth labs in the U.S. offer a local source.

The Surge in Makeshift Labs

More recently, small meth labs, also called clandestine laboratories, have been found throughout the country. Labs are found in remote or hidden locations, designed to attract little attention. They have been found in homes, the woods, hotels, and automobiles. 

Methamphetamine can be manufactured from over-the-counter cold medicine and a combination of household chemicals. Since most people can access the ingredients, it’s turned more people into meth manufacturers. 

Producing meth in local labs reduces the risk of shipments being caught by law enforcement. They can also be established by purchasing legal and readily available tools and ingredients. Like in the U.S., meth labs are a growing problem around the world

In the United States, meth labs are particularly problematic in the Midwest. In Missouri, an average of 1,000 meth labs are seized and dismantled each year. At the height of meth lab production in 2004, over 2,800 meth labs were seized in Missouri alone. In neighboring Kansas, approximately 600 meth labs were found. 

Increased Laws

Meth lab production began to slow down in 2005 following the creation of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005. The law requires all over-the-counter products that contain pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, or phenylpropanolamine to be kept behind a counter or in a locked cabinet, explains the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). All purchases of these products are then recorded, and these medications can only be purchased with an ID.

However, within a few years, meth producers discovered new ways to manufacture meth in their labs using much less of the active ingredients found in cold medicine. Meth labs and manufacturing began to grow in numbers once again and they remain a significant concern for public health and law enforcement agencies. 

Meth Labs & the Current Drug Epidemic

Because most meth is produced in illegal labs, it is entirely unregulated. Consumers have no way of knowing which chemicals are in the meth they purchase or how potent the meth is. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), up to 60% of the meth people consume is not actually meth. Chemicals used in meth labs remain in the meth people take. Meth can contain lead acetate and mercury, toxic substances that can cause poisoning. 

Meth labs have fueled the current U.S. drug epidemic by making meth more accessible and affordable for people looking to get high. Addiction and overdose rates have increased significantly in recent years. Fatal overdoses involving psychostimulants (primarily methamphetamine), have been steadily increasing. 

In 2015, 5,714 deaths were attributed to psychostimulant overdoses. By 2020, that number increased to 23,837. In 2021, over 32,500 fatal overdoses were attributed to use of psychostimulants, most of which were meth. 

Despite attempts made by the government and health agencies, rates of addiction, overdose, and death continue to rise across the country. Drugs continue to be produced illegally, in places like meth labs, and consumers are often unaware of what they are actually consuming. Many overdose deaths are accidental, involving chemicals individuals never intended to consume or at far higher doses than planned.

Dangers of Meth Labs 

Meth labs are dangerous because they are set up in makeshift locations that expose people to a variety of risks. 

In many ways, meth labs contaminate the environment they are in. Through the cooking process, toxic chemical fumes are released, spills occur, and fires and deadly explosions can happen. Additionally, waste materials produced during manufacturing are often dumped illegally, negatively impacting the environment and any animals that come into contact with it. 

Exposure to chemicals found in the air of meth labs, even when meth is not actively being manufactured, can cause harmful effects. Such health effects include the following: 

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Dizziness 
  • Reduced coordination 
  • Burning of the skin, eyes, mouth, and nose
  • Headache
  • Nausea 
  • Fatigue 

Long-term exposure to chemicals found in meth labs is known to cause more serious side effects, including cancer, brain, liver, and kidney damage, reproductive issues, and birth defects. A meth lab should not be entered until it has been sufficiently ventilated and cleaned by well-protected and trained individuals. 

How to Recognize a Meth Lab

By nature, meth labs are designed to be hidden and hard to identify. Any one sign may not correctly indicate a meth lab, though a combination of suspicious signs may point to one. 

Signs of a meth lab include the following: 

  • Unusual smells, like ammonia or ether, which can smell like rotten eggs or cat urine
  • Blacked-out or covered windows
  • Unusual ventilation systems 
  • Excessive security
  • Dead spots in the surrounding yard where toxic chemicals may have been dumped 
  • Unusually large amounts of waste around the site
  • A generally unkempt property, inside and outside 
  • A significant number of meth-manufacturing supplies, including cold medicines, lithium batteries, camping fuel, hydrogen peroxide, acids, coffee filters, funnels, and glassware
  • Presence of meth-cooking equipment, like bottles with hoses attached to them
  • Unusual behavior of the residents, such as paranoia, secrecy, and staying inside the home for extended periods of time 
  • Residents frequently smoking cigarettes outside to avoid inadvertently starting a fire or explosion in the lab
  • Dumping trash away from the property
  • Frequent visitors, especially at night, who may be purchasing meth or supplying its production 

If you believe you have discovered a meth lab, do not try to enter it yourself. In addition to dangerous exposure to toxic chemicals, you may encounter threatening and unpredictable people and put your physical safety at risk. 

Immediately leave the area and alert any bystanders to stay clear of the suspicious site. Call law enforcement and report your findings. 

Only well-equipped law enforcement agents should enter the site. Properly trained specialists must also clear the area of toxins and environmental hazards before it is safe for anyone else to enter. 

Meth Labs & Drug Addiction 

Meth is highly potent and low in price compared to other drugs. People often turn to using meth for the intense high it produces. In a short period of time, cravings and withdrawal symptoms can begin when use is stopped, encouraging further use. Meth labs exist across the county to fulfill people’s cravings for the drug. 

Despite a national effort to fight the demand for meth, meth labs remain in business. They are easy to set up and can be built nearly anywhere. Since they are so easy to build and meth can be cooked by untrained individuals, meth labs fuel addiction by keeping a constant supply of the drug available in communities around the country.

Updated March 20, 2024
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  2. Drug Overdose Death Rates. (February 2023). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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  5. Methamphetamine DrugFacts. (May 2019). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  6. Recognizing a Meth House/Structure. (2021). State of Nevada.
  7. Tips for Teens: Methamphetamine. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  8. Methamphetamine Laboratory Identification and Hazards Fast Facts. National Drug Intelligence Center.
  9. Household Contamination With Methamphetamine: Knowledge and Uncertainties. (December 2019). International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
  10. Hazards of Illicit Methamphetamine Production and Efforts at Reduction: Data From the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance System. (2011). Public Health Reports.
  11. “Once Again, a Meth Lab Exploded and Somebody Died”: Narratives of Volatility and Risk in the Rural Drug War. (August 2017). Crime, Media, Culture: An International Journal.
  12. 'I Don't Know That I Would Even Call It Meth Anymore'. (October 2021). The Atlantic.
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