Recognizing a Meth Lab

What is Meth?

Methamphetamine (meth) is an extremely addictive stimulant drug that strongly activates certain systems in the brain.  Chemically, it’s closely related to the drug amphetamine, but the central nervous system effects of meth are greater.  Dependence occurs swiftly.

As a powerful stimulant, meth, even in small doses, can increase wakefulness and physical activity and decrease appetite.  A brief, intense sensation, or rush, is reported by those who smoke or inject meth.  Oral ingestion or snorting produces a long-lasting high instead of a rush, which reportedly can continue for as long as half a day.  Both the rush and the high are believed to result from the release of very high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine into areas of the brain that regulate feelings of pleasure.

Meth has toxic effects.

In animals, a single high dose of the drug has been shown to damage nerve terminals in the dopamine-containing regions of the brain.  High doses can elevate body temperature to dangerous, sometimes lethal levels, as well as cause convulsions.

The withdrawal symptoms, especially the depression and physical agony, are reported to be worse than heroin or cocaine, and often addicts will drop out of recovery programs.


Meth is usually a clear-to-white crystalline substance.  It gets one of its nicknames, crystal, because of its appearance — think sea salt crystals for example.

The color can vary considerably, depending on its purity and method of manufacture.  In its cheapest and most toxic form called crank, the drug takes on varying shades of greasy-brown, sometimes with black flecks.  Ice, a very pure form of the drug, is clear or transparent in appearance, closely resembling rock salt.

 The Faces of Addiction


The fall of a once successful Dallas dentist (left),
is dramatically illustrated in these photos.
With a revoked dental license, unemployed, and addicted to meth, she was arrested for selling bogus pain pill prescriptions


The most common questions;

  • What are the signs of a meth lab?
  • How do I recognize a meth lab?
  • How to identify clandestine drug operations?

The questions are being posed from?

  1. A legal aspect?
  2. A criminal aspect?
  3. A property liability aspect?
  4. A hazardous substance exposure aspect?

Depending on the above context of the question, the answer will change.

Legal Aspect

The definition of a “meth lab” varies from State to State; that which is considered to be a meth lab in Colorado may legally be considered little more than a messy house in Delaware, for example. Some states have no particular definition of what constitutes a meth lab, whereas other states, like Colorado, have very broad and well defined parameters of what constitutes a meth lab, (where even the mere possession of meth in a property will constitute a meth lab).

Recent work by Inspectors at the National Jewish Hospital in Denver, Colorado indicate that a single use of methamphetamine, by smoking, would result in an average residential area ambient airborne concentration of methamphetamine ranging from 35 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) to over 130 µg/m3. “1  The NJH scientists found that smoking methamphetamine just once in a residence can result in surfaces being contaminated with methamphetamine.  The authors concluded: “If methamphetamine has been smoked in a residence, it is likely that children present in that structure will be exposed to airborne methamphetamine during the ‘smoke’ and to surface methamphetamine after the ‘smoke’“.

There have been studies done in Colorado which demonstrated that a single episode of smoking meth in a residence produced sufficient airborne methamphetamine to contaminate 18,500 square feet of surface area in a home to a concentration exceeding 0.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters of surface area (0.5 µg/100 cm2).

Missouri has no legislation governing the level of meth found that constitutes a math lab.  However, in general, homes where meth was found are considered meth contaminated residences by law enforcement.  These facts may or may not be published on a general data base.

Criminal Aspect

Similar to the legal question, the criminality of a meth lab may vary state to state, county to county, and even city to city.  Throughout United States jurisdiction, meth is considered to be a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act.  However, each local jurisdiction may have its own statutes and legislation on what constitutes “manufacturing,” and the criminal aspects of the elements needed for prosecuting a meth lab owner.

Not only are there a variety of dissimilar production methods, but each method can be broken down into distinct segments that may be performed at different locations.  Since the end product in most of those segments is not methamphetamine, a person may not be prosecuted for carrying out that one step; even though the resulting contamination to a property may pose a very serious threat to an occupant’s health.

Property Liability

If a landlord rents a space to a tenant, and the landlord suspects the space may have been used as a meth lab, what is their liability?  If the seller of a home sells a property to a prospective buyer, and the seller knows or believes the property to have been used for meth related activities, what is their liability?  What is the obligation of the buyer to ask the question?  Will a home inspector, conducting a standard pre-buy inspection, be able to discover evidence of a meth lab?  Should a home inspector even be expected to have sufficient training to find such evidence?

Home Inspectors should not be expected to identify meth labs, and they should indemnify themselves against any statement about meth presence.  It simply is not their task, obligation, responsibility nor are they covered by liability insurance to able to identify meth labs.

Realtors and Home Inspectors generally report on material facts; their standard of care is necessarily limited to their professions, and training.  If a nosey neighbor approached a Home Inspector during a home inspection and told the home inspector that they think the previous occupants were meth-heads since they were not good neighbors, is this material knowledge?  If during a home inspection the Home Inspector strikes up a conversation with a beat cop who informs him that a meth-lab was removed from the property, does that raise the standard of care and standard of expectation of what the Home Inspector or Realtor must disclose?

In either case, further inquire with law enforcement is appropriate.

Hazardous Substance Exposure Concerns

For most people, especially those who are purchasing a new home, or contemplating moving into a rental property, the concern is more fundamental.  Typically, they are not interested in learning if a meth lab was present; but rather; are there hazards chemical threats in the property that will harm me?   Am I safe?

The following must be answered:

  1. What, if anything, is present?
  2. Of those items that are present, which, if any, are contaminants?
  3. Of those contaminants, if any, are present and which, if any, pose an exposure potential?
  4. Of those exposures that are present, which, if any, pose a significant toxicological threat?
  5. How can I be confident I have not overlooked contamination that is present?
  6. How can I be confident I have not reported contamination that is not a problem?

Answering the first question alone requires that the inspector have a sound working knowledge of how meth is made, what contaminants may be present using that method, what is the environmental fate of each chemical, and how can those contaminants be expected to migrate through the property.

To answer that question, the inspector must establish a hypothesis and test that hypothesis.  An example of the thought process that an inspector pursues in answering this question is provided in this General Sampling Protocol.

Recognizing a Meth-Lab 

Not all meth-labs have indicators such as odors and/or stains.  Indeed, most meth labs encountered by the public will not have any unusual odors or stains.  Most meth labs are “invisible.”  However, most of the residual subjective indicators that are present are stains. Very, very rarely will a meth lab have any residual characteristic odor.  Most cases, when red or pink stains are reported by Realtors or Home Inspectors, the staining is not associated with a meth lab.  On the other hand, reported meth lab homes which appeared to the naked eye as pristine, and sparkling new, contained concentrations of methamphetamine and other contaminants at concentrations thousands of times higher than permitted by regulation.

The key to recognizing a meth lab necessarily must take into account the totality of the circumstances.  Probably, no one indicator will conclusively be used to identify the presence of a lab. Rather, it is the presence of a combination of indicators that will lead the inspector to declare a property as a former meth lab.

There are a number of myths some people believe can be used to identify former meth labs.

For example, if hair spray is applied to a wall, a red stain is visible if a meth is present – Not true.

Another myth is the idea that spray starch applied to a surface will identify a meth lab – Not true.

Recognizing a Meth-Lab

Here are some items which will most profoundly speak to the issue of the presence of a meth lab.

Common household chemicals in uncommon places. Common household chemicals in uncommon quantities. Common household cat litter in uncommon places. Common household cat litter used in uncommon ways.
Propane bottles with blue or green valves. Rust appearing on door hinges, keys, cabinet knobs, and light fixtures. Diffuse red or yellow staining. Localized red or yellow staining.
Unusual small holes in walls and doors indicating the running of cables. Hoses, and/or queer pieces of equipment, and glassware or hoses attached to gas-cans with electrician’s tape. Stained coffee filters (stained with or containing something other than coffee). Jars containing unidentified liquids.
Jars containing bi-phased materials (a liquid floating atop another liquid, or a liquid atop a settled solid). Broken battery casings. Bizarre wall writings or graffiti inside the property. Stripped match books and striker plates.
Trap doors in floors such as in closet, under a  bed  and  behind walls Hidden guns, ornamental knives, ammo. Unusual quantities of pornography, or indiscreetly placed sexual toys. Dismantled appliances, clocks, and computers.
Chaotic and squalid living areas. Drug paraphernalia such as meth pipes and bongs. Coffee grinders stained with something other than coffee. Dangling fishhooks in attics or crawlspaces.
“Artistic” experimentations. Unusual burn marks, unreported fires. Missing or detached smoke detectors. Unusual ventilation or plumbing.
Modified refrigerators or coolers. Unusual locations for switches, such as this trigger at the bottom of a closet door. The presence of fake documents such as license plates and fake identification cards. Meth labs can also be found in family cars, in campers, and in commercial vehicles.